Gandhi’s Art of Non-violently Transforming “Evil”
“ Changing the world begins with changing yourself; you have to become the change you want to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi
The most Gandhi-like person I know is a very patient and gentle yogi who lives in New Delhi. When I told him I was preparing this lecture he wrote “Making an honest and sincere attempt to practice exactly what one preaches is not easy-- but Gandhi did it to near perfection; at the cost of enormous physical as well as mental hardship, he examined his life in light of his convictions with brutal honesty, and underwent enormous inner suffering whenever he found himself wanting. That can give much greater torture than giving up physical comforts voluntarily, in which he also went to an extreme.”
Why was Gandhi so scrupulous? He himself said: “You have to become the change you want to see in the world.” Gandhi said that he thought Leo Tolstoy was the embodiment of truth in the age in which they lived: “Tolstoy’s greatest contribution to life lies, in my opinion, in his even attempting to reduce to practice his professions without counting the cost.”i Gandhi said that reading Tolstoy’s writing “The Kingdom of God is Within You” changed his life, turning him from a votary of violence to an exponent of non-violence.
This freely moving quality of inspiration is interesting in itself-- That an experience or idea is not fixed in one region of earth or one religious tradition but is contagious. The flow of inspiration is unpredictable -- the life of Buddha was translated and told and portrayed in plays in Europe, and it inspired and changed Tolstoy, especially the parable of the strawberry; Tolstoy inspired Gandhi; Gandhi was an inspiration to Martin Luther King, Jr.ii
Gandhi, like Tolstoy and King, always seemed ready to put his comforts aside and put his life on the line without counting the cost. In South Africa, meeting a leper, Gandhi offered to care for him, for example. Gandhi, with his whole life, made a generous contribution to the reservoir of human possibilities, on a scale that is rare. The impression he made was of a person skillful in work-- a defining mark of the yogi. He was a person who was “Fakir-like” or “renunciant-like” with few possessions and with soulful ideals of simplicity. He was a person whose presence reminded the Christian monk Thomas Merton of “a human question mark.” Gandhi questioned unjust social structures and assumptions that had become accepted as reality.
Gandhi was very practical; he knew how to represent the disadvantaged legally, and was a man who held the highest ideals for his standards. His conscience stirred him to challenge injustices. He made a great impact on the world, even during his own lifetime. He was one of the few people widely known around the world in a time of fewer and simpler media. His activities and charismatic personality were in the newsreels and tabloids. His nonviolent approach appealed to many people. Caricatures of Gandhi with his spinning wheel; or with his staff, marching to the ocean to make salt, wearing the simple homespun dhoti of a farmer, were recognizable around the world. His famous smile in black and white photos carried his aura of friendliness to many nations. He seemed to give voice to the ancient wisdom of Asia and the nobler teachings of Western religions, giving hope to people in trouble d times.
Among the materials in the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Collection, there is a frayed strip of worn paper which looks as if King had carried it in his wallet for years. On it the words “Gandhi speaks for us” were written in King’s own hand-- a kind of reminder to himself.
No other Indian is known so well in America and has such a place in people’s memory. A sign of this is that a country music singer can sing of Gandhi in the same breath with Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. and everyone fully accepts it, as Chris Kristofferson does in his song:
“ There was a man named Mahatma Gandhi,
he wouldn’t bow down he would not fight.
He knew the deal was down and dirty,
and nothing wrong would make it right, o yah.
And he knew his duty, and the price he had to pay.
Just another holy man who tried to be a friend,
my God, they killed him!”
We see the fruit of Gandhi’s non-violent approach in the winning of India’s independence; in American civil rights progress; and in South Africa’s end of apartheid and in the reconciliation process there.iii But looking around today we may wonder, where is his presence and his legacy now-- have people of our generation been letting it slip away? Where is the spirit of “the human question mark” and the dedicated renunciant today? Often the logic of the renunciant’s self-sacrifice for self-purification seems missing in the modern age. I’ve had smart students ask: “What is this Hindu idea of doing austerities, what do vows of renunciation mean?” People today are less likely to have heard of the ideas of giving up comforts for a greater good, fasting and observing silence, “twisting the tail of the cosmos” by tapas. Many are unfamiliar with traditions of foregoing pleasure, sacrificing and sublimating energy for spiritual gain. (I note that Saddam Hussein was conducting a hunger strike recently, and Cindy Sheehan was doing a liquids fast, in which she could drink milkshakes with coffee ice cream. Others do “relay fasts” taking six hours each, without disturbing much their eating schedules.) The willingness to suffer, and the inevitability of self-sacrifice in striving for one’s cause, seem less understood today than in Gandhi’s day or in earlier times.iv (Although we should keep in mind that Gandhi himself spent much effort in educating, explaining the ideas behind his practices, in his writings and speeches.) As we get more conveniences, electronic labor-saving devices, entertainments, and easy ways to do chores there seems to be more resistance to giving up any enjoyments or luxuries. We seem to become more needy and less free.
Yoga is self-control, inward turning contentment, freedom from the over-riding need for comfort and pleasure. The tapas practiced in yoga involves self-restraint. While luxurious pleasures exhaust, weaken and soften one’s will, tapas is the discipline which marshals strength and builds stamina. It is the “fire in the belly” which shows itself in courage, firmness of resolve. Gandhi’s vows and resolve were a yoga, a practice like the tapas of traditional India in the modern age.v
Einstein, an admirer of Gandhi, who said “I regard Gandhi as the only truly great political figure of our age,” also said that a day would come when it would be hard for people to imagine that someone like Gandhi could even have existed. Sometimes, with all the wars and acts of violence in our world today, it seems like that day has already come. Violent acts seem to be increasing, even among some groups previously known to be non-violent, and, and they seem increasingly to be accepted as inevitable.vi Why is the sensibility of non-violence, which was so awakened in Mahatma Gandhi, so ignored, seemingly buried, or sleeping in so many people today? Is it a combination of factors-- including leaders’ shortsighted power politics being so pervasive, our love of comforts, our desire for security, the prevalence of fear, and the desire to avoid risk? Not wanting to be bothered, has our age become more numb and less attuned to conscience?
Gandhi himself wrote that “High thinking is inconsistent with complicated material life based on high speed imposed on us by Mammon worship.”vii If Gandhi thought the speed of life was a problem in the early decades of the 20th century, what would he have thought of our times in which everything seems to move even faster? He thought the re was need to be “rural minded to be non-violent,”viii following a natural rhythm of life.
A modern thinker about spiritual matters, Thomas Moore, writes “Soul cannot thrive in a fast-paced life because being affected, taking things in and chewing on them requires time... A period of non-doing is essential nourishment to the soul.”ix In a great hurry, and fully occupied, how thoughtful can one be? How much can one listen to conscience if one is pushed to keep up with a fast-forward speed? Gandhi, while in jail for acts of civil disobedience during several periods of his life, used the time in lock-up to digest experiences, and to develop ideas. He worked his way through a very large number of books , and wrote letters and articles, and reflected on difficult questions to find enduring answers.
Ultimately the point of talking about Gandhi is to relate Gandhi’s way to our times. To see how “Gandhi speaks for us.” But first we may need to “step back to leap forward.” In preparing this talk I have tried to understand Gandhi’s ideas reflected in his many writings. Besides the Autobiography, which I’ve read several times, I’ve been reading the three volume collection -- The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, edited by Raghavan Iyer. It is made up of a compilation of Gandhi’s articles published in papers, letters and interviews. Also, selections from Gandhi’s writings, including Thomas Merton’s Gandhi on Non-Violence. All of Gandhi’s writings are occasional -- responding to a specific occasion, rather than theoretical or academic. They relate to issues that crop up and need to be dealt with. r
These writings help us see the nuances of understanding which Gandhi developed, and to see how his key principles hold together, like the facets of a gem. There are many deep presuppositions behind his best known arguments, a wealth of ideas and traditions behind his attitudes and policies. I think it is very useful to explore Gandhi’s ideas about “Ahimsa” and “Truth” and the transforming of “Evil” through Satyagraha, which I believe was Gandhi’s greatest contribution to problem-solving. In fact, I think Satyagraha was his contribution to the evolution of human beings to fulfill their spiritual potential. It is a vision much needed by us, but it is often lacking in our lives today. Gandhi wrote that “Man as animal is violent but as spirit is non-violent. The moment he awakes to the spirit within he cannot remain violent. Either he progresses towards Ahimsa or rushes to his doom.”x
Holding to conscientiously militant non-violence in the pursuit of justice did not originate with Gandhi. There were precedents in history, -- Vaishnava, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh,xi and Christian, for example, but Gandhi was the one who most fully worked out for himself and for others the philosophy and practice of non-violence, truth and soul-force. His experiments expanded people’s consciousness regarding the hidden potentials of non-violence. The priority he gave these powerful forces in his own life was remarkable. Gandhi believed that man’s mission in life is to learn the lesson of ahimsa for himself.xii Satyagraha, his most valuable legacy, was the deep idea he centered his life around, a principle capable of being explored, experimented with, practiced by many generations over many centuries.
Satyagraha is not just a teaching, a doctrine or verbal creed for assent, or belief, or memorization; it was not a mental concept alone, like a tissue of thoughts to be learned about. Satyagraha involves principles that resonate with one’s conscience, principles which must be lived. Satyagraha is a practice, a hard-won truth known by experiment, sacrifice, risk, and aspiration. Satyagraha is Gandhi’s vision for dynamically living in such a way that one fulfills one’s own spiritual potential while changing the conditions that generate suffering into relations of harmonious joy and fulfillment.
Gandhi pointed to the ancient yoga aphorism of Patanjali “Enmity vanishes before ahimsa,”xiii as one of many historical examples of the wisdom of non-violence in ancient India. What is this power, the very presence of which dispels discord?
Ahimsa literally means harmlessness. Mark Kurlansky, who wrote Non-violence: 25 lessons from the history of a dangerous idea,xiv recently remarked that there aren’t many positive terms in the languages of the world that fully convey the ideas of “non-violence.” But I think terms like tz'u the Chinese term for motherly love, and jen, good will toward others. And terms like caritas, care, compassion, gentleness, love, might qualify. And karuna, and prema in Sanskrit begin to convey those positive aspects of ahimsa. Also “innocent”--meaning “unharming, and unhurt,” has some correspondences. Gandhi wrote that “Non-violence implies love, compassion, forgiveness.”xv Gandhi wrote in 1916, that “In its negative form [ahimsa] means not injuring any living being, whether by body or mind... I may not... bear any ill will [to any wrong-doer]... In its positive form, ahimsa means the largest love, the greatest charity. If I am a follower of ahimsa, I must love my enemy. I must apply the same rule to the wrong-doer who is my enemy or a stranger to me, as I would to my wrong-doing father or son. This active ahimsa necessarily includes truth and fearlessness... Ahimsa, truly understood, is, in my humble opinion, a panacea for all evils mundane and extra-mundane. We can never overdo it. Just at present, we are not doing it at all...”xvi Ahimsa in Gandhi’s view needs to be comprehensive in life, encompassing habits of daily life like eating and drinking, an ethos encompassing all our interactions. “Underlying ahimsa is the unity of all life, the error of one [person] cannot but affect all.”xvii While those who think of themselves as realists may feel Gandhi is too idealistic, I think there was a long-term realism in his assessment. After WWII Gandhi wrote “Those who have their hands dyed deep in blood cannot build a non-violent order for the world.”xviii Gandhi was skeptical about a lasting peace resulting from any war. Bombs cannot force well-being, cooperation, and friendliness into existence.
Gandhi wrote t hat “the result of ahimsa is always good.”xix He reminded people that “It is not himsa or destructive energy that sustains the world, it is ahimsa, the creative energy. I do admit that the destructive energy is there, but it is evanescent, always futile before the creative which is permanent. If the destructive one had the upper hand, all the sacred ties-- love between parents and child, brother and sister, master and disciple, rulers and the ruled, would be snapped. Ahimsa is like the sun, whose worship, as the symbol of God, our rishis immortalized in the Gayatri [which is the Vedic mantra praying for light and divine inspiration]. As the sun ‘keeps watch over man’s mortality’, going his eternal rounds and dispelling darkness and sin and gloom, even so does ahimsa. Ahimsa inspires you with love than which you cannot think of a better excit ement...”xx The creative energy which orders the universe at all levels is thus identified in Gandhi’s philosophy with ahimsa.
Echoing Rig Veda X.90 Gandhi noted that “In violence there is nothing invisible. Non-violence, on the other hand, is three-fourths invisible, so that effect is in the inverse ratio to its invisibility.”xxi We cannot see all that results from our ahimsa as it subtly works.
Ahimsa’s mysterious potential is something that can only be known by experience. “To realize non-violence means to feel within you its strength, otherwise known as soul-force, in short, to know God.”xxii “I know this cannot be proved by argument. It shall be proved by persons living it in their lives with utter disregard of consequences to themselves.”xxiii The examples of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela come to mind. Gandhi’s own practice also was to live in such a way. Gandhi said that his optimism’s source was his “belief in the infinite possibilities of the individual to develop non-violence. The more you develop it in your own being, the more infectious it becomes till it overwhelms your surroundings and by and by might oversweep the world.”xxiv Ahimsa is thus a mysterious power which can be seen in legendary and historical examples from all around the globe. Gandhi gathered these examples to illustrate his points: Prahlada, Mirabai, Daniel, Jesus,xxv Columbus in facing a mutiny,xxvi Thoreau, Muhammad’s non-cooperation with Mecca for a 13 year period,xxvii Arabs who opposed French gunners non-violently, and others.xxviii
Ahimsa in Gandhi’s view is “the chief glory of Hinduism.”xxix For the person who practices it, ahimsa involves a n intention in the mind, a focus that expresses the “I and Thou” relationship rather than the “I and it” attitude.xxx Gandhi said non-violence was “the only true force in life.”xxxi With ahimsa man can fulfill his destiny and his duty to his fellow creatures, Gandhi said; it is a force more powerful than electricity. “At the center of non-violence is a force which is self-acting.”xxxii Gandhi said later in his life that even if non-violence turned out to be a dream, that it was beautiful to him.xxxiii He also notes that the practice of ahimsa is more difficult than walking on the edge of a sword.xxxiv It is a skill, a demanding discipline, a graceful expression of consciousness, a vehicle toward enlightenment.
THE ART OF AHIMSA
Gandhi said “I claim to be an artist working with non-violence.”xxxv Ahimsa really is a performance art, conceived in the visionary conscience, and acted out on the public stage, confronting injustice, and causing the audience to have a change of heart. The practitioners plan a concerted effort to present their demands in a way that will bring the unjust situation to light, to call attention to it on the stage of public opinion. It is a series of creative improvisations in the face of oppression, dramatizing disapproval and calling for change. There is another way ahimsa is an art. The Asian martial arts include not just graceful actions, but also absences of action; one steps out of the way and th e aggressor trips, falling of his own weight and awkwardness. As Sun Tzu wrote the Art of War, Gandhi worked out the way to have an Art of Non-War. The oppressor, by being brutal, indicts himself as a brute in the eyes of all those who have conscience and sympathy.
In bringing a change one needs a vocabulary to present the vision, to communicate the new philosophy. Part of Gandhi’s art was finding the right words to communicate his points. For example the term Harijan, “children of God.” In his vocabulary there are important verbs, --to non-cooperate, to withhold participation, to refrain from violent acts, to engage in hartal, or a strike --not doing. This is part of a pan-Asian wisdom. Wei wu wei is a Chinese phrase in Taoist philosophy for accomplishing without acting. Instead of responding with a punch, a club, shooting a gun, stabbing, bombing, if there is an emptiness, the attacker finds no resistance but an empty space; there the aggressor goes too far and gets his just deserts, perhaps realizing his own foolishness. Intelligent, skillful “political jujitsu” can accomplish what is otherwise impossible. For example, demonstrators couldn’t use force against the well-armed police and US military in the Civil Rights movement, but by going unarmed and accepting brutal attacks, and by willingly suffering at the hands of men unleashing attack dogs, and wielding fire hoses, cattle prods, and billy clubs, non-violent protestors won the sympathy of the nation, and the lawmakers. (Perhaps the Palestinians would have won more of their demands by now if they had used this method.)
Gandhi asserted that Truth --the nonviolence truth of a few is ultimately what counts, while the untruth of millions vanishes.xxxvi (We remember and value Thoreau today, but we don’t know much about his contemporaries.)
Ahimsa and satya worked together in Gandhi’s experiences. He said: “When I look for ahimsa, Truth says, ‘Find it out through me.’ When I look for Truth, ahimsa says, ‘Find it out through me.’”xxxvii He also said that “Non-violence and Truth together form, as it were, the right angle of all religions.”xxxviii That is, the typical pattern or conjunction of love and conscience, the practice of holding to the soul’s concerns, following one’s inner light. Ahimsa is the willingness to treat all beings as oneself.xxxix This is the Vedanta vision of paramatma - - that the same spiritual reality is found in all; someone really viewing the world in such a way would not attack another, but would experience a sense of solidarity.
SATYA AND SATYAGRAHA
God, for Gandhi is “a self-existent, all-knowing, living Force which inheres in every other force known to the world and which depends on none, and which will live when all other forces may conceivably perish or cease to act. I am unable to account for my life without belief in this all-embracing living Light.”xl God is truth, satya.
“Satya” is a deity in the Rig Veda, and the term means “truth,” “ultimate truth,” or “the enduring reality.” Satya is “the ultimate eternal reality.” Truth goes beyond the human practice of honesty-- In Hindu traditions it is the power of being true, inner resolve, and is conscien ce, inner spirit, soul force, the deepest reality in each being.xli
Gandhi wrote: “truth, truthfulness and Absolute Truth, the Eternal Principle, that is God... I worship God as Truth only. I have not yet found Him... As long as I have not realized the Absolute Truth, so long must I hold to the relative Truth as I have conceived it... Often in my progress I have had faint glimpses of the Absolute Truth, God, and daily the conviction is growing upon me that He alone is real and all else unreal... The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust... Only then will he have a glimpse of truth.” The ultimate goal of life for Gandhi was “to see God face to face, to attain Moksha.”xlii Gandhi said that he felt an innate passion for tru th from an early age.xliii How did the Truth he sought reveal itself to Gandhi? “To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life,” including politics.xliv Such an experience involves a spiritual openness to life, embracing lives far beyond one’s kin and birth community. Gandhi’s hold on Truth thus kept him grounded in the workings of society.
In practice, in dealing with the injustices in the world Gandhi saw the principle of truth not as eternally inflexible; sometimes Truth involves the beauty of compromise -- “truth is hard as adamant and tender as a blossom.” Gandhi’s was not a one-sided view of Truth.xlv Truth is a power found in us all, especially when we are true to it: “I may be a despicable person,” Gandhi said, “but when Truth speaks through me I am invincible.”xlvi Gandhi saw God in the souls he met and worked with: “I am endeavouring to see God through service of humanity, for I know that God is neither in heaven, nor down below, but in everyone.”xlvii Gandhi also wrote that “Meeting with the peasants I was face to face with God, Ahimsa and Truth.”xlviii The reason he had this realization was his love for the people, the simple trusting souls of humanity, for the spirit in humble seekers, and this is nothing other than his “unshakable faith in Ahimsa,” a bond which is direct and experiential. It is not doctrinal or logical, but an experience of the sacred.