Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Satya agraha (Satyagraha)

30 September 2009

What is the principle of nonviolence? 

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It is not possible for the English word "nonviolence" to communicate the meaning of what is commonly referred to, in English, as "nonviolence"!  This is not a paradox, but rather a limitation of the language used to convey the concept.  There simply is no English language equivalent for the Sanskrit term, Satyagraha (click here for pronunciation). 

Satyagraha, a term coined by Gandhi, is a derivative of two other words: Satya means a truth which equals love; Agraha means force.  The term "Satyagraha" combines these two concepts into one word.  By this, Gandhi means to convey the concept of an active, powerful force of moral truth, a truth which is indistinguishable from and characterized by altruistic love.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., translated Satyagraha as "soul force" (in his "I Have a Dream" speech). Satyagraha could also be called "love force" or "truth force". 

The term "nonviolence" is incapable, linguistically, of capturing the active and powerful nature of the concept of Satyagraha.  The term "non," coupled with "violence" implies mere absence of violence.  Because of this problem, use of the term "nonviolence" is actually discouraged.   Satyagraha is not merely the absence of violence.  Satyagraha is a positive and powerful force in its own right, not merely the absence of something else.  It is a counter measure, an opposite, to oppression and violence. 

Nor is Satyagraha merely a passive enterprise.  As enunciated and modeled by Gandhi and King, it is the active, and often physical, employment of a powerful spiritual and moral weapon.  The individual employing satyagraha is armed not with physical power, but with moral power.  Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong.  It is a weapon consisting of truth and love.    

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Moreover, because Satyagraha is not passive -- it is an active assertion of positive moral energy and decision -- the the term "civil resistance" is preferred to the term "passive resistance".  

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Martin Luther King in jail after being arrested for requesting service at the segregated restaurant in the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida. Photo taken on June 11 or 12, 1962.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, LC-USZ62-116774.

In the theory of Satyagraha, the means and ends are seen as inseparable.  Violence can never be used to achieve justice, because whatever method is used to achieve a result will become embedded in that result. For example, if a war is won by military means, then the military will become embedded into the new order, and that order will thusly be reliant on presence of the military.  Gandhi wrote, “There must be no impatience, no barbarity, no insolence, no undue pressure. If we want to cultivate a true spirit of democracy, we cannot afford to be intolerant. Intolerance betrays want of faith in one's cause.”



How might this principle be applied in civic discourse?

This principle is universal, applying as equally to power within personal relationships as it does to power in relationships between individuals and governments and between governments themselves.

Thinking in terms of nonviolence, on the other hand, is a good start for thinking about what it means to apply the truth-force to conflict.  To be manifest, the truth force of applied, active love must always be nonviolent.  Nonviolence begins verbally, with how we think and speak toward others.  Through employing nonviolent language, we engage in nonviolent responses to those around us.  As nonviolence begins to be incorporated into our lives, active peace-force begins to be manifested in how we relate to others, in how we build community, and eventually in how we respond to those who sin against us.  Gandhi wrote,

In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.

Give this concept some time, and mull it over.  I think of this concept as being similar to the concepts of matter and energy: you can think in terms of a subatomic particle (my thoughts about myself), or you can think in terms of a galaxy (how nations should relate to one another).  The ideas, both big and small, are beautiful and consistent. 


The Merciful Christ c. 1603 by Juan Martinez Montanes

thank you to the Web Gallery of Art

art the merciful christ


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