Thursday, May 1, 2008

Satyagraha


On September 11th, in the beginning days of a new century, an unprecedented event took place that changed the course of history. In Johannesburg, South Africa, in the old Empire Theatre, a full house of Indian South Africans stood up and vowed to disobey their country’s unjust racist laws. They took a solemn oath to do so without shedding a drop of their enemy’s blood, though they were prepared to sacrifice their own, “to die but not to submit to the law.” With that act, the diminutive thirty-six year-old lawyer standing onstage created satyagraha. His name was Mohandas Gandhi, and the date was September 11th, 1906.

My fiancée and I saw Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha at the Met Monday. (If that sounds elitist, I’ll go bowling in Pennsylvania to make up for it.) The opera tells the story of Gandhi’s early activism in South Africa.

Gandhi crafted the word satyagraha, which refers to using peaceful resistance methods for political or social reform, to replace “nonviolence” and “passive resistance,” terms that many people who practice true nonviolence don't like. Why? Because nonviolence is a negative word, defining itself as the opposite of violence, e.g., not-violence. In reality, nonviolence is the active, positive force, while violence should be described as its negative corollary. Nonviolence also carries the stigma of passivity, but according to Gandhi, it is the most active force in the world. Simply not being violent is not practicing true nonviolence — I am not emulating Gandhi just because I refrained from attacking any passersby today. Practicing nonviolence is difficult, certainly harder than practicing violence. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate.” That is why Gandhi described satyagraha as active nonviolence. Satyagraha can be translated as “truth-force,” although Gandhi also described it as “holding to truth,” “pursuing truth,” and “direct action for truth.” He defined the three core principles of satyagraha as truth and fairness, refusal to harm others, and the willingness for self-sacrifice.

Gandhi found that violence sometimes works in the short term, but never in the long term. Sometimes violence quickly solves a problem, only to breed resentment that rears its head with more, and often greater, violence. On the other hand, nonviolence always wins out in the long term, and often brings short-term gains as well. And even in cases when nonviolence does not solve an immediate problem, it causes no harm and sows seeds of peace that are guaranteed to sprout later. As social critic Theodore Roszak wisely put it, “People try nonviolence for a week, and when it doesn’t ‘work’ they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries.” Gandhi learned that the anticipated end of any problem, and the means for achieving it, couldn’t contradict each other. To build a permanently peaceful society, only peaceful methods are effective.

I consider Gandhi to be a scientist who discovered the new field of satyagraha. As he fully admitted, he only scratched the surface of the techniques and power available. Martin Luther King, Jr., was inspired by Gandhi and built on his work to innovate new methods used in local campaigns. “The whole concept of satyāgraha . . . was profoundly significant to me. . . .It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking for so many months.”

The opera ended with a powerful scene that featured Gandhi and Dr. King on stage together. Gandhi walked on the ground belting out the meditative music, with Dr. King preaching at a podium in the air, seemingly grabbing the music and realizing further dreams with it.

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