Memorial Lecture

Sixth Ravindra Varma Memorial Lecture

October 9, 2012

 Lanza del Vasto : An Apostle of Non-violence and Peace

Louis Campana

  Pesident , Gandhi International, France

             As a young idle aristocrat, Giuseppe Lanza del Vasto travelled around Europe, from high society salons to literary circles, in search of meaning and recognition.

He was already in his thirties when he heard about an Indian man who was resisting the British occupation.

            Was he familiar with Hind Swaraj !  ? It is hard to tell. But news spread across Europe of a modest lawyer, educated in England, trained in South Africa, who was organizing a campaign of resistance against the established British order in reaction to the humiliation and exploitation of poor Indians in this remote land ruled by the British administration. His indignation was also triggered by the behaviour of some of his fellow-countrymen who were quick to collaborate and profit from the process of colonisation.

             At the age of 24, Lanza del Vasto became a Doctor of Philosophy and a teacher at the University of Pisa in Italy and had only started to reconcile with his Catholic faith.

           He had experienced a spiritual awakening at a very young age, an epiphany which had profoundly shaken and enlightened his life : he was four years old when he fell hard on the frozen ground of the garden of his father’s mansion, but his cry of pain was quickly interrupted by the sight of an extraordinary light. The sun was shining through millions of frozen dew drops around him, reflecting the light in a fantastic beam, like the many edges of a glowing diamond. This instant marked the beginning of his intellectual quest and, through this fascinating stained glass, came his search for meaning, for the holy path and the finality of all things. He then discovered Thomas of Aquinas and read the last lines of the Summa Theologica as the goal of his quest : ‘‘Deus est relation, non autem relativa quia non mutabilis.’’ (God is relation, but not relative, because unalterable), (Viaticum I, VII, 32). This infinite and ultimate relation to God persuaded him to join Gandhi in search of a holistic life where everything would be connected, where matters of politics, society, culture, cult, spirit and religion would be brought together in order to work towards an economy based on community and in which each and everyone would be considered with dignity, a place where people would live together in respect and fellowship.

             The 1930s were a very unstable period in Europe and uninterrupted political tensions carried the seeds of another major conflict. Revenge was in the air and in order to avoid hostilities some nations made dangerous pacts with Hitler or Mussolini, thus demonstrating their desire for power on the international stage.

            In 1936, Lanza Del Vasto’s growing concern led him to visit Gandhi in Wardha, and as he entered his house he thought : “Here he is before my eyes, the only man who has shown us a green shoot in the desert of this century. A man who knows the hard law of love, hard and clear like a diamond. The captain of the unarmed, the father of the pariahs, the king who reigns by the divine right of sainthood.” (Return to the Source, New York : Schoken Books, 1972. pp 100-1)[1].

             Upon his return, in 1937, Del Vasto decided to compile and share the results of his reflection on personal and social transformation, on other forms of living together. He published three books :

  • Principles and Precepts of the Return to the Obvious (New York: Shocken, 1974)[2], a collection of principles for the ones in the throes of wandering, begging and self-contemplation ;
  • Judas (Paris : Grasset, 1938)[3], a reflection on Judas’s role in Jesus’s life and its analogy applied between a man and himself.
  • Return to the Source, partly written in India, relates his own experience of the Hindu culture. In this book, he expresses a holistic approach to the religions of the world, stating that, although profoundly diverse, each of them is a pillar of Man and his History.

             In 1939, the war broke out and Europe was quickly ablaze. In Italy, Lanza Del Vasto enlisted in an international medical unit in order to help injured and wounded soldiers. He later remained very secretive about his period of his life. In 1942, the publication of Return to the Source was an unexpected success in those time of war (200,000 copies sold) and consequently brought him back to his circle of friends, intellectuals in search of meaning. However, it soon became apparent that they did not share the same revolutionary viewpoints : Lanza Del Vasto rejected their Marxist tendencies in favor of a revolution of the Self, which he simply called ‘‘conversion’’. This self-discipline, not associated with any religion, echoed Gandhi’s Swadeshi : an economical, ethical and personal autonomy leading to a fulfilling life for every individual.

             He organised lectures on the Gospels, highlighting their similarities with the teachings of Gandhi, and saw the Beatitudes as the founding principles of a government based on evangelical poverty, compassion and the absolute necessity to respect all human beings. In the growing spiral of hate and violence of the time, in which modern societies were heading to their own destruction, the non-violent movement led by Gandhi and followed by millions of poor people asking for freedom and independence appeared to be an effective way to liberate long-standing fears, hate and resentment while preserving strong determination in the face of abuse of power. During these lectures, Lanza Del Vasto invited people to bring spinning wheels, to work leather, to carve and design little objects in order to promote personal economic independence. This also encouraged people to develop a sense of the aesthetic. They sang both Gregorian chants and traditional popular songs.

            He met his wife, Chantelle, during the war. She was a musician and a singer. Their common passion for the arts (contemporary and medieval) and crafts (spinning, weaving, chiseling, sculpture…) had a strong influence on the L’Arche communities that they would develop together.

             This took place in Paris, in the heart of busy popular neighbourhoods and the small group of people soon felt the urge to move outside the city, to the countryside, to a place where the first demand of the non-violent movement could be answered. In one of his famous quote Lanza Del Vasto criticized the society of his time by saying : “Work is divided is such a way that one does the ploughing but another enjoys the harvest”[4]. Following Gandhi’s principles, he believed that the one working the land should also be the one harvesting the fruits of his labour and the first to consume them. In the same way the spinning wheel had become the symbol of a newly reconquered freedom in India, Lanza Del Vasto believed this group of people could embody a new sense of freedom in Europe after World War Two.

            This is the beginning of the community of L’Arche : a boat (like Noah’s in the book of Genesis) floating on the ocean of a world based on profit and domination, a boat with no port and no anchor, inhabited by resisting and actively thinking individuals. Paradoxically, they adopted the figure of the farmer (pretty rare on a boat) as a symbol of self-sufficiency : in their eyes, the farmer was freed of any compromise because they were no longer subject to any form of power. Indeed, history has shown that the control of food is often linked to the control of people.

             In 1945 the war ended in Europe. On January 30th, 1948 Gandhi was assassinated in India.

            The community settled in the small village of Tournier, on an estate lent to them by friends. The transition to farming life was not easy for these former city-dwellers and even though crops were slow to come their commitment did not fade. Lanza Del Vasto (known as Shantidas, or “Servant of Peace” : the name given to him by Gandhi in Wardha), travelled across France spreading Gandhi’s ‘‘Good News’’. More publications followed : Commentaire de lEvangile (Commentary on the Gospel)[5] in 1951 and Gandhi to Vinoba: The New Pilgrimage[6] in 1954.

            For a period of six months he joined Vinoba (a follower of Gandhi) and the Bhoodan movement in their continuous march across India. For almost fourteen years Vinoba went from village to village, introducing himself as the youngest member of the family and asking rich land owners for his share of the heritage in order to give poor or landless farmers. Through this door-to-door process, millions of acres of land were then distributed, but various legal issues started cropping up in the handling of the donation procedures : landowners coming back on their decisions, pieces of land proving to be barren, dishonest beneficiaries selling their lot… However, this journey remained an expression of outstanding generosity and became a myth in the great Gandhian saga. In 2011, in Jarkhand, villagers who had been given land 60 years earlier had created a fantastic oasis providing fruits and food for the 250 people living there in harmony.

             In 1959, Lanza Del Vasto denounced the violences perpetrated on Algerians in Algeria (then a French colony) and in France. As a disciple of Gandhi, he started a non-violent campaign and published Pacification en Algérie, ou mensonge et violence (Pacification in Algeria or deceit and violence)[7]. As an Italian citizen denouncing the actions of the French authorities, Lanza Del Vasto was at risk to be arrested or even deported.

            He protested vigorously against the tortures and abuses perpetrated on Algerians and gathered many followers, in particular Jo Pyronnet, who eventually took the lead of the movement. The fight lasted for years. The activists relentlessly expressed their outrage going as far as chaining themselves on the Place de la Concorde, in Paris, while holding banners reading ‘Nous aussi sommes des suspects’ (‘We are suspects too’). At that time in France, racial profiling could lead to imprisonment without trial.

            While his companions kept on stomping the streets of Paris, risking violent encounters with the police force, Lanza del Vasto kept on writing columns in newspapers and published a new book entitled Les Quatres Fléaux (The Four Plagues)[8].

             What he says on his presentation of the book is : “Misery, Slavery, War, Sedition : these are the four plagues which have been striking the cities and kingdoms of humanity since the beginning of time. The first two are passive, you are subject to them even if you did not create them for one endure them without creating them. They are states of being, not events; a lingering and endemic evil ruling on every era and every society like the high price to pay for any civilisation. The other two are active, for they are thought, planned and put into action. They differ from other voluntary acts by their fatal and ineluctable character.”[9]

            In this book, Lanza Del Vasto presents his vast historical and political analysis in a sort of panoramic view, which stands as the ‘‘philosophy’’ of L’Arche. It is directly inspired from the teaching of Gandhi and adapted to the western civilisation and its biblical foundation. It aims at denouncing the treason of a civilisation originally based on the principles of the Gospel and corrupted by speculation, greed, oligarchic land ownership, profit and domination.

             Lanza del Vasto was a supporter of a non-violent revolution. In the book series Pensée gandhienne (Gandhian Thought), he published a French translation of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj (1909) as well as an introduction to one of the books entitled ‘‘Leur civilisation et notre délivrance’’ (Their civilisation and our deliverance).

             This non-violent revolution consisted in refusing to collaborate with the dogma of profit, in resisting and disobeying its system, in reaching personal inner transformation, in taking only what one needs, in being aware and considerate of the needs of others. This programme was based on the spirit of the Beatitudes and, according to Lanza Del Vasto, followed the path Gandhi would have taken if he had been in charge of India’s constitution.

             The 1960s were marked by the fight against civil and military use of nuclear power (one being the alibi of the other). Protests were fierce. By this time, the community had moved to Bollène, not far from the nuclear sites of Marcoule and Tricastin, forefronts of the French nuclear industry.

            In 1963, at the time of the Second Vatican Council, Lanza Del Vasto brought the issues of the nuclear bomb directly to Rome and started a hunger strike in order to urge the Church to adopt nonviolence as an effective and civilising position. He remained on strike for 40 days.

A few years earlier, in 1958 in Geneva, Lanza Del Vasto had already strongly protested against the nuclear weapons that France was promoting as an effective defense system during the Cold War times. The world’s nuclear power already had the power to wipe out the entire planet in a gush of fire and blood. In summer 1976, in Malville, Lanza Del Vasto started a 7-days hunger strike in order to protest against the construction of Superphénix[10]. This one lasted for a week, until he broke into the plant. However, no one dared to touch him and the line of policemen parted to let this old white-bearded man go through, imposing respect with his determination. After years of judicial battles, the facility definitely closed in 1997 due to the high cost of maintenance.

             A few years earlier, in 1971, farmers of the quiet Larzac plateau learnt overnight that the 3000 hectares Larzac military base was to be transformed into a 17,000 hectares experimental military station, directly connected to the ground-to-ground (GGM) missile launch facility in Albion, used as tactical deterrence by the French Nuclear Force in case of enemy attack. André Faton, then France’s Secretary of Defence, commented on the project : ‘‘Whether we like it or not, the potential agricultural riches of the Larzac are extremely weak. So I think it was logical to consider that the extension would cause only minimum inconvenience… It is true that there are a few peasants … who desultorily raise a few sheep, while living the life of the Middle Ages. It is necessary to take their land.’’[11]

            Most of the farmers immediately reacted by grabbing their riffles, ready to die for their land, and waited for the police who come and expel them. This could have been tragic. At that time, the community of the Ark resided at the foot of the Larzac plateau, at Borie-Noble, on the southern side.

            Lanza del Vasto learnt about the farmers’ reaction. He asked to meet with them and said : “Your violence will justify the violence of the State and within fifteen days the Larzac will be a military camp and you will have lost your life, your land and your hope. Let me stay with you and fast for 15 days and I will show you to another path”[12]. And he did. Shantidas went on a 15-days hunger strike and was joined by farmers and the bishops of Montpellier and Rodez for several days. He slowly and peacefully spread the teaching of Gandhi and shared his own experiences and christian faith in the face of power. Furthermore, he asked them to take the oath that they will never sell their land to the government, to be used as a place promoting death and nuclear weapons.

            One hundred and three farmers took the oath and one hundred and three trees were planted along the road to legitimize this new fight. Lanza Del Vasto urged the farmers to decide for themselves what actions to take,  stating that it was their future to shape and that they should not let themselves be controlled by small political groups or radical movements. In reaction, these groups were invited to support the farmers and join their struggle. As a matter of fact, the Larzac became a national symbol of contestation. Lanza Del Vasto also suggested that the community of the Ark settled on the Larzac plateau, in the deserted village of Les Truels, which still exists today, and where “a few peasants … who desultorily raise a few sheep, while living the life of the Middle Ageshave been making and selling delicious goat cheese in the local markets every day for the past thirty years.

             The struggle for the land of Larzac became a leading symbol and gave rise to many slogans, such as ‘‘La terre fait vivre, les bombes font mourir !’’ (Land brings life, bombs bring death!) Pieces of land left unused by the army were cultivated and the crops sent to the Sahel (in the Sahara desert), where famine is recurrent. Consequently, actions of civil disobedience assumed at the same time a social, humanitarian and international significance and generated a global philosophical debate, asking fundamental questions to the people of that time and their lifestyle. Other forms of protest followed : herds of sheep were brought under the Eiffel Tower in Paris, marches (with families and tractors!) between Rodez and Paris were organised in 1973, 1978 and 1980… All these actions had a friendly atmosphere and along the road they found the support of the population and a general enthusiasm for this peaceful but unbroken resistance.

             This struggle lasted for ten years, until the election of François Mitterrand, in 1981. François Mitterrand had visited the Larzac in 1978, but had been assaulted by radical protesters. Local farmers had defended him, thus attesting their non-affiliation to any particular political movement. After this event, Mitterrand had promised that, if elected president, he would forgo the extension of the military camp. And indeed he did. The fight led by the farmers of the Larzac is the only example of a popular and nonviolent movement’s victory without casualties in France.

             The influence of Lanza del Vasto in the world of both active and passive non-violent movements is beyond doubt. The Latin-American SERPAJ (‘Service Peace and Justice’, led by 1980 Nobel Peace prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, 14 delegations on the continent) advises all its members and supporters to consult the books of Shantidas, all of which are translated in Spanish, and to look at Lanza del Vasto’s actions and commentaries as a source of inspiration. In the Republic of Congo, a non-violence  advocate has created the ‘Lanza del Vasto Institute’. Films and documentaries on his writings, his life, his actions as well as his philosophical works have flourished since his death in 1981. On every continent he is admired for the holistic life he led, embracing with wisdom and strength all aspects of life : living as a society, ecologically, with the respect of traditions (as well as their being challenged), the systematic rejection of war, moderate personal asceticism, the hard reality of choosing every day what you take and what you give, the refusal of monopoly, of greed and of the control of the basic human needs.

            Lanza Del Vasto was a loyal follower of Mahatma and he faithfully spread the Gandhian philosophy, but he also drew on his Christian tradition and in highlighting their similarities, he allowed its major principles to be renewed and understood in a way uncorrupted by history or obsolete practices.

 This text was written after the oral presentation of Sixth Ravindra Varma Memorial Lecture on 9th October 2012 at the Institute of Gandhian Studies , Wardha. It does not pretend to cover the whole  subject of such a unique and universal thinker.To know more, visit the site of the“Friends of Lanza del Vasto”(, run by Daniel Vigne, author of various books on Lanza’s philosophy.

 Notes and References

[1] Le Pèlerinage aux sources, Paris: Denoël, 1943 (rééditions : Gallimard, 1989 ; Le Rocher, 1993).

[2] Principes et préceptes du retour à lévidence, Paris: Denoël, 1945. (réédition sous le titre Eloge de la vie simple, Paris: Le Rocher, 1996.)

[3] Never translated in English.

[4] « Le travail est si bien divisé que l’un travaille et l’autre récolte. »

[5] Never translated in English.

[6] Vinoba, ou le nouveau pèlerinage, Paris: Denoël, 1954 (réédition: Gallimard, 1982.)

[7] Never translated in English.

[8] Never translated in English.

[9] « Misère, Servitude, Guerre, Sédition : quatre sont les fléaux qui frappent les cités humaines et les royaumes depuis les commencements des temps. Passifs les deux premiers, parce qu’on les subit sans les faire. Ce sont des états de choses et non des évènements, mal chronique, endémique, régnant à toute époque et sous tout régime, rançon, semble-t-il de toute civilisation. Actifs les deux autres, parce qu’on les prépare, prémédite et conduit, différents pourtant des actes volontaires par leur caractère inéluctable et comme fatal. »

[10] Superphénix was a nuclear power station on the Rhône River at Creys-Malville in France, close to the border with Switzerland.

[11] in Tous au Larzac (Everyone to the Larzac) (DVD) by Christian Rouaud.

[12] «Votre violence justifiera la violence de l’État et dans quinze jours le Larzac sera un camp militaire et vous aurez perdu la vie, vos terres et vos espérances. Laissez-moi passer quinze jours avec vous à jeûner et je vous engagerai dans une autre voie.»

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