Friday, February 4, 2011

The Discipline of Satyagraha

A few days ago in my English 112 (Argument and Rhetoric) class, I had just shown the class a documentary film, The Corporation, a brilliantly crafted and scathing exploration and expose of the inherent self-maximizing logic of multinational corporations and their rapacious effect on the planet and society alike, and after class, one of my students, a young woman, remarked, "That film made me want to commit suicide." So I took some time out after class to give her a few alternatives to suicide, mainly by remembering that corporations need OUR money in order to thrive, and that the revolution begins in our wallets; that every time we choose to spend our money in a socially and ecologically responsible manner, we make it easier and more cost effective for everyone else to do likewise.

But her rather drastic response to this illuminating and terrifying film about the pervasiveness and rapacity of Glomart got me to thinking more deeply about how to give her, and all young people, an adaptive alternative to suicide in a time when (structurally self-serving) corporations have taken over our country, are destroying the planet with impunity, and have even colonized our minds via 24/7 television brainwashing--when all media voices critical of Glomart hegemony are being snuffed out one by one--Bill Moyers, David Brancaccio, and most recently Keith Olbermann.

Such thoughts got me thinking, yet again, about Mahatma Gandhi and his luminous concept of Satyagraha, the Dharma-based practice he developed for resisting systemic oppression of all kinds, a practice taken up, in turn, by other luminaries such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Thich Nhat Hanh, Vandana Shiva, the Dalai Lama, Wangari Maathai, Sulak Sivaraksa, and Aung San Soo Kyi. So what follows is my own take on Gandhi's essential principles of Satyagraha, and is dedicated to this young woman, to all my students, and to all young people on the planet.

The word Satyagraha combines two Sanskrit words: Satya (truth) and Agraha (Holding firm), and it therefore means simply "holding firmly to truth." Gandhi coined this term as a substitute for the familiar term "passive resistance" to describe his campaign against British colonial domination in India, for he pointed out, quite rightly, that Satyagraha, while nonviolent, is anything but passive. It is, in fact, a form of warfare, a means of opposing oppression, with the important difference that it strives to convert, not destroy, the enemy. It is, in short, resistance without hatred.

While Satyagraha is commonly understood merely as "civil disobedience" or "nonviolence," it is, in fact, much more--it is an all-inclusive discipline that, if practiced with integrity and diligence, touches every aspect of our lives, from our response to political and economic oppression to our daily relationships with each other and with the planet.

Gandhi defined Satyagraha based on three central and interdependent principles, likewise derived from Gandhi's own indigenous Hindu traditions: Ahimsa (Nonviolence), Satya (Truthfulness), and Swaraj (Self-rule). To these I would add, based on my own absorption in Gandhi's teachings, as well as my study of his disciples (especially Martin Luther King, Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and Wangari Maathai) three salient characteristics of a Satyagrahi (i.e. a practitioner of Satyagraha): in everything he/she does, he/she acts mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly. Let us therefore probe these two triads--Ahimsa, Satya, and Swaraj, practiced mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly, in order to clarify our understanding of this magnificent and transformative discipline.

Ahimsa which translates as "doing no harm," is the cardinal principle of Satyagraha, as both a political strategy and a way of life. It is based on the Dharma itself as principle, precept, and practice. If it is true (which it is) that we are "caught in an inescapable network of mutuality" where "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly," then it follows necessarily that any form of violence is ultimately self-defeating--that whatever goes around, comes around. Gandhi recognized, moreover, that means and ends are inseparable: if you justify violence as a means to any political end, the outcome itself will be dependent upon the perpetuation of violence, and the world you create will be poisoned by hatred, vindictiveness, and animosity. One way of looking at Ahimsa can be summed up in the following, paradoxical syllogism:

  1. "Strength lies in attack and not in defense." --Adolf Hitler
  2. (However), "Force is followed by loss of strength" --Lao Tzu
  3. (Therefore) "The meek shall inherit the Earth" --Jesus Christ.
All three quotes have their own wisdom. Hitler's satanic wisdom applies in the immediate short term, as any street fighter, soldier, or tyrant will tell you: in any combat situation, you gain advantage by attacking first. And believe it or not, Gandhi would agree. When asked what he would do if someone were attacking his family, Gandhi responded, without hesitation, "I would kill him first, if possible." The point is, there are circumstances where self-defense requires violence, but it only works in the short term.

In the longer term, Lao Tzu's wisdom, "Force is followed by loss of strength" always kicks in--as Hitler himself discovered to his cost, and in fact, as all tyrants, all who live by brutalizing others, come to find out sooner or later. This is simply a transform of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and it is also the foundation of all martial arts, properly understood: "Yield and overcome."

From which it necessarily follows, in the perspective of eternity, that "the meek shall inherit the Earth." The word "meek," however, is a connotatively obsolete translation of the Greek Praeis, a more apt translation of which would be "gentle," "accommodating," or "adaptable."--that is, someone who has cultivated the virtues of letting go of attachment to ego and maintaining equanimity: a practitioner, in heart and mind, of Ahimsa.

Ahimsa, however, is not easy. It involves coming to terms with the violence, not only in the world, but in ourselves. The best way to do this, of course, is to remember the essential discipline: whenever feelings of rage arise, we must remember to breathe, observe, and let go. And in fact, all practitioners of Satyagraha from Gandhi on have routinely withdrawn from the heated landscape of political strife to recharge themselves through meditation and devotional practices--Gandhi by withdrawing to his Ashram, King to the black churches, and Mandela, paradoxically, to the jail where he spent 26 years of his life, practicing Satyagraha day in and out.

Satya refers to the art of what the Quakers (themselves very proficient Satyagrahis) called "speaking truth to power." And this, likewise, is a demanding discipline, involving moral courage, eloquence, and strategic intelligence. Those who confuse speaking truth to power with disrupting a speaker by yelling insults completely misunderstand this principle, for effective and mindful speaking always involves listening as well. Today, some of the venues through which we can speak truth to power involve letters to the editor, public hearings, and visits to our elected representatives. If we do not practice these arts of citizenship, we will quickly lose them.

Swaraj or "self-rule" was originally a political term expressing the aspirations of the people of India for self-government, as opposed to British colonial domination. But Gandhi expanded the implications of this enormously, to comprise both self-discipline (through meditative practices and the ongoing cultivation of self-awareness and compassion) and also--most importantly--economic autonomy, as symbolized by Gandhi's spinning wheel. Today, therefore, in our struggle against Glomart domination, Swaraj involves reversing the three ways in which Glomart seeks to strip us of our autonomy. In three crucial domains--personal, civic, and global--the Glomart system (i.e. the Order of Money) is driven to reduce us from active to passive, and we must resist accordingly, asserting our autonomy:

  1. Glomart benefits, and Gaia suffers, by turning active citizens into passive consumers. We can therefore push back by exercising our citizenship in whatever ways are still available--speaking truth to power through electoral politics, letters, hearings, and visits to policymakers, as well as through strategically organized mass demonstrations. Even as consumers, we can push back by assuming responsibility for the social and economic consequences of the money we spend. A good way of doing this can be found on websites like Goodguide.
  2. Glomart benefits, and Gaia suffers, by turning active communities into passive markets for their products. We can therefore push back by organizing our communities, buying locally produced food, and forming or joining Community Based Agriculture cooperatives.
  3. Glomart benefits, and Gaia suffers, by turning our natural support systems--forests, mountains, fisheries, aquifers, and topsoil--into commodities which can be bought and sold on the market, and the pollution which results from manufacturing these commodities. We can therefore push back by doing everything we can to protect our planet--from voting with our dollars to speaking truth to power to organized nonviolent noncooperation with evil.
And of course, the latter--direct action--is always our last resort, after all the other efforts have failed. If and when a campaign of direct action becomes necessary, it is essential that we be well-trained and well-prepared for it, and that, as in any nonviolent warfare, we act mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly. A poorly organized campaign of nonviolent resistance often backfires, and simply aids Glomart in stereotyping us as "radicals" or imprisoning us as "terrorists." Therefore, strong, credible moral leadership--such as a Gandhi, a King, a Mandela, a Vandana Shiva, or a Wangari Maathai--is essential to the success of a nonviolent mass movement. Also, any direct action campaign--organized nonviolent noncooperation with evil--must always be fully predicated on all three principles of Satyagraha--ahimsa, satya, and swaraj--in order to be successful. But we need not fear defeat, for as Gandhi pointed out, a Satyagraha campaign, when practiced with integrity according to these principles, may know many setbacks, but can never be defeated. Like the Dharma itself, it is indestructible, even if we ourselves are impermanent. As Dr. King said, "the man who has nothing to die for has nothing to live for."

So in our common effort to bring spontaneous remission to the Glomart cancer of the Earth, please remember and adhere to these key principles: Ahimsa (resolute nonviolence); Satya (resolute speaking of truth to power); and Swaraj (resolute self-rule and local self-reliance). And remember the three attributes as well of any authentic act of Satyagraha: that it is mindful, strategic, and relentless.