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Christian Satyagraha

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What is Satyagraha?:  Satyagraha and Christianity

Mohandas Gandhi called his philosophy of social change by peaceful means satyagraha. The word is derived from the Indian words satya (truth) and graha (from the same Indo-European root word from which comes our ‘grasp’, ‘grab’, and ‘grip’).

Satyagraha is more than a philosophical system; it is a metaphysical force. Thus it would be more correct to call Gandhi a discoverer of satyagraha than its inventor. We should be willing to extend and refine our understanding of it, and to adapt Gandhi’s principles to modern issues and circumstances.

Consider satyagraha the subject of a cumulative science — something we collectively experiment with and gradually improve our ability to use.

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Gandhi said many times that he developed his ideas about satyagraha in large part from New Testament teachings. Yet he also, when asked what he thought of Christians, replied: “I don’t know; I have yet to meet a real Christian.” Together, these remarks remind Christians that (1) they may, potentially, learn more about what satyagraha is and how to use it by looking more to their own Christian scripture and traditions than to the writings of Gandhi, and (2) they should try harder to use the spiritual tools of their tradition to promote change in the world.

As evidenced by Gandhi’s life and writings, there is a link between satyagraha and suffering. The link is not spelled out; there is no definite metaphysical theory that explains the connection. We must rather infer it from various specific actions and indirect comments of Gandhi, along with other data.

There are clearly psychological mechanisms by which ones suffering may change the opinion of others. For example, oppressors may be moved by compassion to change oppressive policies and practices; or oppressors may become convinced of the others’ sincerity and good will by their acceptance of suffering.

But these psychological mechanisms, while important, are not the only consideration. What of silent, private suffering? What of sacrifices made that others never directly observe? It seems a near-universal practice in spiritual traditions that one person may assist another by voluntarily accepting suffering on their behalf. In Christianity, Christ himself accepted suffering for the salvation of others — for undeserving others, in fact, as St. Paul points out (Rom. 5:7-10). Christians, whose model is Christ, are expected to similarly accept sacrifice both to help alleviate the suffering of the oppressed, and to promote the moral advancement of others, including ones enemies and persecutors.

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Satyagraha, as “truth force”, involves truth; people lose sight of that too easily. Social activism undertaken in a spirit of militant self-righteousness or indignation is not satyagraha. One must first align oneself with truth. That is no easy task.

It is especially ironic, then, that so many people engaged in activism choose to distance themselves from traditional religions. For example, young people today are quick to follow Gandhi’s beliefs about social change; he is taken as a credible, authoritative source in that matter. But people pay much less attention to his support of traditional religion and spirituality. If his example is authoritative in the one case, why not in the other? Should one admire his political actions, even to the point of calling him a mahatma, which means great-souled, yet ignore his obvious support of traditional religion? That makes little sense.

To apply satyagraha one must align oneself with the truth. This means one must first seek out the truth — which is God, or comes from God, or is in any case closely associated with God — and then overcome the personal obstacles that cause one to prefer self-will, egoism, or selfish ends to God’s will.

Thus, the person who wishes to follow the methods of satyagraha effectively should also be a religious person, in the traditional sense.

Today when a person says such things it is thought strange; yet this is completely consistent with Gandhi’s teachings.

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Various rules and principles of satyagraha as outlined by Gandhi and Christianity:

Love your enemies

* harbor no anger towards your enemies
* suffer the anger of the opponent
* do not insult the opponent
* do not trivialize the beliefs or intelligence of opponents
* forgive as you wish to be forgiven; hate the sin but love the sinner
* opponents are God’s children, made in His image and likeness
* defend your opponent against insult or assault
* look for God’s face in the face of others

Truth

* set an example of truth-seeking
* educate yourself, expand your perspectives, question your assumptions
* be honest with yourself; habitually examine your conscience and scrutinize your motives
* God is Love. God is Truth. When you stop loving you depart from truth.

Mental transformation

* do not stereotype any ethnic or cultural group or any person
* understand the dynamic of projection: what you do not like in yourself, you project onto others
* a strong, irrational attitude towards others implies projection
* first see if faults ascribed to others apply to you
* external conflict mirrors internal conflict

Personal virtue

* do not be angry
* do not curse
* patience is the foundation of all other virtues
* concupiscence is the enemy of patience; practice temperance; moderate and control appetites

Religion

* have a living faith in God
* have faith in the inherent goodness of human nature and peoples’ ability to change
* pray
* read scripture
* prefer God’s guidance to the voice of false reasoning

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It is very ironic and counterproductive that many advocates of peace today express themselves in negative, hostile, and aggressive terms. If, for example, you preach peace but hatefully ridicule George W. Bush, people will pay more attention to your actions than to your words. Moreover, acting in so plainly counterproductive a manner, you will have lost touch with truth and the truth-force.