Satyagraha – Pacifism as military strategy …

Satyagraha – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Over the weekend I caught a program I've seen many times before, on the Biography Channel, the biography of Mohandas K Gandhi.  I've always admired Gandhi … the main reason for that is that he brought practical use to the philosophy of pacifism, or more precisely, of peaceful disobedience.

"Christ gave me the message.  Gandhi gave me the method."  Martin Luther King Jr described his own peaceful movement for human dignity in that way, and as he so often did, MLK Jr. expressed Gandhi's gift to the world in such clear and simple language.  Gandhi gave us the method to apply the message that so many others have given over the years.  Jesus wasn't the first or last 'prophet' to preach peace in response to intolerance and injustice … 500 years before him, Prince Siddartha was saying very much the same thing as the Buddha in India.

But Gandhi was the first person in history to put those ideas into practice, to actually deploy the weapon of peace on the battlefield.  Before Mohandas, no one had the courage, or the wisdom, or the foresight, to actually put those pacifist principles into practice and in his early life, even Gandhi seemed an unlikely candidate for the Mahatma.  His philosophy was really forged in South Africa, as he watched blacks, both the native Africans and his own imported Indians, brutally oppressed by the British minority.  He returned to India from South Africa in 1916 determined to free his country, but determined to do it through his new idea of satyagraha.

Literally, this means struggle or endeavour (agraha) for the truth (satya).  The three main principles of satyagraha are Satya, Ahimsa, and Tapasya … or, the truth, the refusal do harm to others, and willingness for self-sacrifice in the cause.  These three principles, really, form the core of a weapon that Gandhi was determined to turn in the British Raj enslaving his country.

Most of us know the basic story … Gandhi and his followers stood up to British soldiers, suffereing jail, brutal beatings, slaughters, and more, before finally winning freedom from a Britain that had problems elsewhere as well at the time.  And in many ways, history records that Gandhi eventually 'shamed' the British empire into 'doing the right thing.'

From my perspective, that's a load of crap, lol.  For one thing, for all the supposed 'civilisation' of the British Raj, they were still happy to slaughter Indian civilians who got out of line.  The reality is, Gandhi's main weapon wasn't an appeal to decency … he'd tried that route when he was a lawyer, trying to work within the laws to improve everyone's life in India.  No, Gandhi struck at the economy through his civil disobedience.

Like the bombing of a rail line or a factory, what Gandhi did was a huge blow to the economy.  Even if he didn't call it a strike, when 100's of thousands of people would turn out to hear him speak, or follow him on marches, the economy of entire cities might grind to a halt.  And thats the key point of Gandhi's strategy … he hit the Raj where it hurt, in their pocket books.

That's the secret behind the idea of passive resistance.  Its NOT about getting people to realize they are being nasty and brutish to you … that's NEVER going to happen.  But in the case of a foreign invader, an occupying power of a few thousand in a country of millions, there's a reason for the occupiers to be there.  India was an economic boom for the British Empire, the crown that essentially financed the rest of the Empire.  That was possible ONLY through the complicity of the millions of Indians who served the foreign invaders, and Gandhi saw through all that.

Gandhi was the first person to realize that invaders NEED to frighten and terrify a population.  The reason to conquer, to invade, to empire build, is all about resources, about economy.  The British economy depended on Indian labour working for them, and when Gandhi took that away, he dealt a blow to the Empire that they never recovered from.  But the British didn't leave because they suddenly felt bad for subjugating the Indians for a few hundred years … they left because with everything else going on in the Empire, they couldn't afford to have Indians refuse to work for them anymore.

It was an important realisation for Gandhi, and I think its one that anyone who weilds satyagraha as a weapon in the future will utilize.  Gandhi knew that the revolution wasn't against the British … it's a revolution against ourselves.  The principle of self-sacrifice is the hardest of all really.  Its one thing to be prepared to kill for your beliefs, and history is littered with those people.  Its a rare find for a person to step beyond that to be truly prepared to die for their beliefs.  And its even rarer to find someone who can recognize that as a powerful tool to attack the economic interests of invaders.

Perhaps the final irony of satyagraha, and the thing that makes it that much more effective, is that nothing annoys the thoughtless, the intolerant, the ignorant more than quiet, calm piety.  What Gandhi did was almost unfair, if you could say that war and cultural subjugation actually had any rules of fair play, in that he refused to play the game by the old rules.  He refused to respond in the way the British troops expected him to respond, and in that way he presented the foreign invaders with a problem they were wholly unprepared to solve.  If they couldn't scare the Indians into giving up their protests, through brutal, violent repression, they really had no other game plan.  Gandhi's victory was that he called the military bluff, met them on their own playing field, and said, "Do your worse.  We know you need us to do the work, and we're not going to take it anymore."  Gandhi showed us that lack of fear, that willingness to sacrifice, is the sharpest sword of all.


One Response

  1. Pat and I are donating money to have Ghandi’s birthday reconized on our local National Public Radio station. It’s 2 October. If enough people do the same, there will be a lot of people hearing the same honorific the same day. Teehee–JohnL

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