Nonviolent Action as Spiritual Practice



This article originally appeared in Conscious Choice magazine.


This spring, New York City hosted a series of events to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi's movement of satyagraha,
"truth-force," the use of non-violent activism as a political
technique. Gandhi has become one of those saints from the distant past
whose name is frequently invoked without thought to the nature of his
achievements. When we consider the violence saturating the world today,
it is remarkable to recall that satyagraha triumphed over the British
Empire, winning independence for India. This victory required great
sacrifice and acceptance of privations, violent attacks and
imprisonment on the part of many thousands, Hindus and Muslims alike,
who joined his movement.

Gandhi's spiritual practice of
active nonviolence is very different from the passive doctrine of
ahimsa, "nonharming," that has gained popularity in the yoga community
of the West. Ahimsa is ideally suited for a situation where
nobody is seeking to cause you harm. If you find yourself in imminent
danger, or caught in a larger system of oppression, different measures
need to be taken. Techniques of satyagraha can include protests,
strikes, work stoppages, slowdowns, civil disobedience and so on. "No
government can exist for a single moment without the cooperation of the
people, willing or forced, and if people withdraw their cooperation in
every detail, the government will come to a standstill," Gandhi noted.

Gandhi believed spiritual concepts had no value unless they were
directly applied to our situation on the earth. "Without a direct
active expression of it, non-violence, to my mind, is meaningless," he
stated. The New Age movement in the West has allowed for a convenient
schism between personal practices and principles. Among the privileged
elite, many people who profess spiritual beliefs succeed within a
system that violates their ideals. Among people I know, it still seems
"cool" to be a yogini and vegan while modeling for cosmetics companies
with shoddy environmental records, or practice Buddhist meditation
while writing ad campaigns for corporations that use Third World
sweatshop labor.

At St. John's Cathedral near Columbia
University, an evening was dedicated to satyagraha and climate change,
featuring music by Phillip Glass and Odetta. The suggestion of this
event was that the nonviolent methods developed by Gandhi could be used
to oppose governments and corporations that have failed to address this
great threat to humanity. Such a movement does not seem to be arising
at this present time, and instituting it presents unique challenges.

While racism or imperialism are obvious enemies, many of the issues
facing us now are more intangible. As Buckminster Fuller wrote, "No
human chromosomes say ‘make the world work for everybody' – only mind
can tell you that." It would be reasonable for people to demand a far
more equitable distribution of wealth and resources, reduction of labor
time, immediate world peace, public oversight of science and
technology, and a rapid transition to sustainable practices and
alternative energy sources. A global "Marshal Plan" to reduce carbon
emissions and stabilize the climate system is needed, along with a
deployment of techniques to reverse pollution of the biosphere. The
universal nature of such demands makes them seem unrealizable, although
their logic is not hard to grasp.

When we consider the
digital networks that spread information and ideas across the planet
instantly, the chance for a global satyagraha movement to arise cannot
be dismissed. The vast protests against the Iraq War in 2003 appeared
suddenly, and disappeared just as quickly. Another inciting event, such
as a war or tactical strike, might incite a wave of popular resistance
that would not end after a march or two, but swell into a real movement
of civil disobedience.

Nonviolence can only succeed when peace is converted from a passive wish to a constant activity. As Mark Kurlansky writes in Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea,
a well-organized nonviolent movement poses a greater threat to an
oppressive power than any other form of resistance. As appears to have
happened recently in Tibet, oppressive regimes will seek to provoke
nonviolent resistors into violating their creed, so they can take
drastic reprisals. "History teaches over and over again that a conflict
between a violent and a nonviolent force is a moral argument,"
Kurlansky writes. "The lesson is that if the nonviolent side can be led
to violence, they have lost the argument and they are destroyed."

We now know the earth's climate system does not change slowly, but goes
through radical and sudden breaks. Glaciologists found that "roughly
half of the entire warming between the ice ages and the postglacial
world took place in only a decade," writes Fred Pearce in With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change,
with a temperature increase of 9 degrees during that time. In the past
two centuries, humanity has increased levels of carbon in the
atmosphere by about a third. Our continued tinkering runs the risk "of
producing a runaway change – the climactic equivalent of a squawk on a
sound system."

In the United States alone, tens of millions
of people now practice spiritual disciplines such as Buddhism and yoga,
shamanism and Qi Gong. If this conscious and privileged subset were to
band together, we could apply our spiritual ideals in a social
movement. We could use the techniques of active nonviolence practiced
by Gandhi and Martin Luther King to confront our out-of-control
military complex and corporate structure, and demand the changes
necessary for the safety of our children and our own future survival.


Image by streetart# courtesy of Creative Commons license.