Mahatma Gandhi – Master of Truth
At the core of the principle of nonviolence practiced by the marvellous man I think of as the Mahatma of his age, is the idea of Truth: Sat, Al-Haq, Wahrheit, Pravda, Verdad, Veritas, the Ultimate Reality. But it is also a word now used ambiguously by myself and others, indeed often abused, corrupted and twisted for political or personal purposes.
I had of course long been aware of this idea of nonviolence and had even written a book about it. I believed then and fervently still do that the philosophy and psychology of nonviolence should guide us in all our transactions at any level, economic, political and social. But I have only recently come to understand the implications of really behaving, thinking and feeling in what might be termed the nonviolent mode based on the principles of Ahimsa and Satyagraha. These are the positive harmlessness which means active helping, combined with the soul force as some have call it, through which we come to the very centre of things, to the truth. Indeed Gandhiji referred to his teaching as ‘holding to truth'; he entitled his autobiography ‘My Experiments with Truth’. To the extent that we hold to truth, we see through, we jettison, illusions. And that means that we abandon many shibboleths that dominate our personal and public lives. Our existing thought patterns may make this very difficult and confuse our relationships with those who are not making the transition from one world to another.
Gandhi knew, as they say, where he was at. He was no longer swayed by the conventional wisdom, the political correctness of the day. He had approached the Truth. He understood the situation within himself, with the people of India, with the British. He knew what to do and how. And it worked. He knew and had shown the truth that violence can solve no human problems; instead, it creates and intensifies them; it doesn’t work.
But how is it with us, we who honour the Mahatma and his thought, but who much of the time live mentally in another world ? How much do we have to unlearn if we are understand and to follow the way of nonviolence ?
How, for example, do we think about crime prevention ? What about the conventional official view that: ‘Prison works’ ? And it certainly does, but not in the sense that they mean – to deter crime. What it does is to get a number of awkward people out of the way for a time and to satisfy politicians that law and order are being maintained. But it actually works to increase crime, it increases or creates criminality in those who had not really been criminals at all. That is why the prison population tends to grow. But although many of us realise that imprisonment as we know it is worthless, our communal delusion about the need for prison persists in another part of our minds.
This type of dualistic thinking in fact pervades a great deal of our thinking around the theme of violence and nonviolence. The Mahatma believed in nonviolence not just as a moral principle but because he knew it was the most effective way, the only way, to achieve goals consistent with the Truth – such as the Independence of India.
Nonviolence and the ‘Real World’
Most of us would follow him in believing that nonviolence is a nice thing, a good thing. But at the same time tell each other that in the real world we have to be tough to defend ourselves and protect our country – and of course ourselves
In the last resort, we say, it is legitimate to resort to force, preferably with UN approval, but if necessary – as in the case of Kosovo – not. Let’s briefly consider this and a few other instances.
In Kosovo we, that is NATO, thought a brief surgical strike would bring Serbia to heal (and of course when it didn’t do so in a couple of days, we were really scared). And what did it achieve? A lot of irrelevant damage and a terrible political mess A very wise and senior Chinese diplomat told me with real sorrow that this (from UN point of view) illegitimate action had set back global security and mutual trust by many decades. And how many lives will that cost? But what else could we have done? I quote the old warrior, Winston Churchill who said, ‘Better jaw jaw than war war’. Better, Gandhi would have said, his Shanti Sena or Peace Army an army trained and disciplined in unarmed resistance and negotiation. Indeed the OSCE’s observer group had something of this quality and did excellent work until withdrawn.
Move East to the Gulf War. Very surgical, very few casualties – except to the Iraqis; very quick – except for tens of thousands of young children killed by continuing the war for years in the form of sanctions.
Shift backwards to the first world war. The allies of course won in the end and then imposed terms so devastating, so cruel, that they paved the way for Hitler’s ghastly regime and the second global conflict.
And what about that? Now there, people say, was a war that had to be fought. And I was in it myself for five years, but I can say this: The reason for fighting Nazism was not just that Hitler might have taken over the British isles as well as the rest of Europe, but his policies of extermination, his brutality, his destruction of European democratic culture. We could not allow that to happen to our friends and us, and because we fought, we are today free of these horrors. But if we look around much of the rest of the world, we see that all the horrors that we loathed in Nazi Germany somehow cancerously increased – the almost universal torturing, the genocide, the slavery, the oppression, the fanaticism, the intolerance. In that light our splendid victory looks less complete.
But there is one hopeful lesson to be leaned. At the end of the war the victorious Allies made a mighty effort to help rebuild Germany and Japan not only physically, but educationally and politically (and I am happy to have played a microscopic part in this restoration, counteracting nay part in the destruction) And it worked, as is clear from the amazing economic growth of the two countries. The lesson is that helping the fallen enemy is the best way to become friends with him. It this were widely understood, many of the world’s trouble spots would be peaceful.
But the general principle seems to me unavoidable: attempts, however well-meaning, to solve problems by violence lead ineluctably to further possibly catastrophic violence, as is the case with nuclear weapons, the ultimate example of potential destructive power. Let’s consider Trident, our prized British nuclear deterrent. Whom does it deter, who would rush to invade us or to bomb us – or any of the 140 or so non-nuclear nations – if we gave up? No one of course, as we all know.
But by retaining it we perpetuate the situation in which other nations long for it. And get it. India and Pakistan get it – the countries which their great son Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, set free from the British: yes, they got it too the danger of their people being thereby infinitely increased. And thus naturally, in the course of time, will many others. And then our wiseacres in Whitehall will say: It shows how right we were to keep Trident; it shows how wrong were CND and all the rest who don’t live in the real world; the real world, that is of crazed mass murder. And the smart idiots in the Pentagon will say: how tragic that the technology of National Missile Defence didn’t quite work.
Of course there are rifts in the protective shield of illusion, rifts through which occasionally sweep shafts of reality. In South Africa, for example, a sufficient number of the people, largely led amazingly by many of the clergy who had created the deluded gospel of Apartheid, turned against the faith and system they had made. And then again in the Velvet Revolution when all the states in Eastern Europe rose spontaneously, and with one exception bloodlessly, to throw off their communist regimes.
What they threw off was a political version of a very common and damaging illusion: that by doing what you believe to be the right thing (politically, socially, economically, militarily, personally) you will make others happy and well behaved and that if they are not, they must accept the consequences, which are often some form of punishment. You don’t think you are being violent. You are aggrieved if accused of harshness; you are only acting for the good of others – but they end up in the labour camp, the torture chamber, on the gallows.
These illusions end by turning things upside down. We think we can buy happiness by acquiring possessions, or power, or position – but once gained, we are as empty as before. So we frenetically strive for more, with the same result. Embittered and resentful we blame our circumstances, our friends our family, thus alienating them and increasing our fury and despair, and the violence that these generate. Does this bring us to our senses? No, it simply intensifies our delusions and with them the cycle I have described – yearning, anger, and ignorance of our inner state, our great delusion, and so on to further yearning, anger etc ad infinitum.
This cycle is what the Buddhists call the Three Fires; three fires that are burning up the world as I speak but now they have become universal in the form that is known as globalisation. They can burn brutally and though they can also warm comfortably, they could consume us all in their flames – burning our wisdom before we realise what is happening.
To sum up, we have created systems and structures that conveniently support ambiguous habits of mind about reality of our relations with each other and indeed with ourselves. The ambiguity legitimises both helping and harming, rewarding and punishing, creating and destroying, loving and hating, gentleness and violence.
Mahatma Gandhi’s enormous contribution was to emphasise the truth that in our relations with each other only the first of all these options is legitimate. All the others, however dressed up, however camouflaged with trappings of philosophical or social theory, are false. They are illusions that deceive us into thinking that ignorance of the truth is bliss, that happiness can be bought and sold, and that peace can come through violence. Once we escape from the trap of such mechanical thinking we are in another reality. But the transition is not always easy to make or to maintain.
Nonviolence in action
I would now like to move away from this abstract discussion and to tell you about a contemporary example of nonviolent action. The mise en scene is the Croatian town of Osijek at the start of the present cycle of Balkan wars in early 1992. The town is besieged and the constant bombardment has cost hundreds of lives. It is full of refugees, brutally driven by Serbs from their homes in the surrounding countryside.
The general mood of the people largely combines anger, shock and the urge to fight back and drive out the invaders. Only two people, a Catholic physician called Katarina and an agnostic social scientist called Kruno? took the heretical and virulently unpopular position of advocating efforts to strive for peace and reconciliation with the Serbs.
In this remote area of until recently communist Eastern Europe, Katarina and Kruno knew nothing of the peace movement elsewhere. Gandhi and nonviolence were only names to them, but names with a stimulating resonance that made them enquire further.
Bit by bit these two, with a handful of hesitant friends, tried to argue that they should strive for peace rather than victory. At the same time, they did what they could for all the victims of the war, both Croats and Serbs, of whom in this frontier region there were many They worked for the refugees, those whose homes were destroyed, for the psychologically and physically traumatized. They were deeply concerned with the effect of war and the war mentality on children and did their best to develop peace education.
The movement developed and after some months came the crunch. Serbs rightfully living in Osijek were being turned out of their jobs and homes, and members of the centre, as the group had now become, used every means but violence to thwart these evictions. After an ugly incident they protested to one of the local warlords. He turned on them in fury, accused them of being traitors, and said he would not hesitate to have them killed if they continued this subversive work.
As they left, considerably shaken, knowing that these were no idle threats, Katarina and Kruno were able to say friendly farewell words to the warlord. In the following weeks they and their friends just went cheerfully on with the same work. When asked how they could face the danger with such light heart, they answered that once they had taken an irrevocable decision to continue doing what they knew to be right, they felt liberated. Katarina also explained that she evolved the concept of nonviolence from her experience and recent study of the Mahatma. It was not simply the avoidance of violence, but the transformation of every human encounter, with enemy as much as with friend, into an effort to be of value to that person – to encourage, to support, to soothe sorrow, to heal anger, to reduce confusion.
In this spirit, the centre has grown from two people to a decision making group of about 50 members, the great majority women, and a wider community of nearly 200 working on a large variety of projects. Two of the current major emphases are human rights and reconciliation of the Serbs and Croats who not long ago were killing and brutalising each other in the large surrounding area of east Slavonia and Bandana.
The influence of the centre has spread far beyond the town of Osijek where it is no longer scorned, but cherished and respected. Its influence and multitude of activities are known throughout Eastern Europe and indeed have spread to many other areas of the world. But the great range of the centre’s activities are simply various expressions of its essence, a spint that has transformed all those whom it has touched.
this spirit did not come easily. It evolved through times of doubt and fear, of hardship and danger, of bearing the hatred of their friends. But looking back eight years, I am amazed and humbled by the changes I have seen. With the exception of the two I have named, many of the women first joined the group hesitant and frightened. Now they are strong and assured, fearlessly abiding in the truth they have seen, a truth that is invincibly powerful.
I think the Mahatma would have welcomed and recognised them as his friends.
Earlier in this talk I said that violence did not work as a means of solving human problems, and gave several recent examples. I have now given an example of nonviolence that does work. But if one, why not many; or are we too controlled by sterile convention?
Why not be bold and try it?