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during the Salt March, March 1930. Credit: Yann via
Wikimedia Commons
. CC0 Public Domain.

Once again I’m thinking back to the 16th of
February 2003. By that time, my own experiments with nonviolence had formed my
lukewarm (at best) opinion of the marches and rallies currently in fashion. But
February 16th was not a day to let skepticism reign. The Iraq War was imminent
and people were taking to the streets. I knew I ought be among them. And, while
I cannot claim that I stepped out on that winter morning with every bit of my
hard-earned skepticism left at the door, I did step out. With an earnest and
open heart, I stepped out.

Downtown, I met up with a small group from my
Quaker meeting. We wove among many thousands of our fellow San Franciscans,
adding our voices to a resounding “no,” collectively and clearly pronounced in
the face of the looming re-invasion of Iraq. It was an exhilarating day. It was
a day of passion and purpose. Perhaps most dazzling and heartening was the
knowledge that our voices were lifted in concert with millions of others the
world over.

Remember that? We were experiencing a taste of
the immense potential of people and of the great underlying solidarity that
bound us together. It was a marvelous day. And, it was one of the loneliest
days of my life. The profound loneliness I experienced wasn’t simply a case of
my skeptic shadow getting the best of me. On the contrary, it was the relaxed
grip of my skepticism that opened me to the truth I encountered that day. In
the painful isolation I had that singular experience of clearly seeing
something for the first time that at some level I had known all along.

Amidst the day’s exhilaration it was plain to me
that something essential was missing—that there was, in fact, a gaping void at
the very heart of it all. Deep down, I knew that this marvelous day was a day
of certain failure. I knew that our massive mobilization to stop the war would
inevitably and necessarily fade, and it would do so quickly. During the
march, my eyes were invariably drawn by particular phrases scrawled on several
of the signs and banners. And I couldn’t help but think of the person behind
those catchy one-liners: Gandhi.

Like every great prophet Gandhi is customarily
placed on a pedestal. We revere him as a patron saint of nonviolence, a mahatma—the
Sanskrit term of veneration meaning great soul—a larger-than-life figure we can
never hope to fully emulate. We hold him at this comfortable distance, deeply
impressed and inspired, while remaining free and clear from what he actually
taught. Gandhi himself bristled at the thought of being called mahatma,
doubting his worthiness of the accolade, and knowing well that such veneration
would necessarily distract people from what he was actually doing. Gandhi urged
his fellow Indians not to exalt him but to look at the nuts and bolts of
nonviolent transformation.

Over the last decade, I’ve seen my primary work
as that of taking Gandhi down off the pedestal. I’ve studied him closely,
including his teachings about Satyagraha, a term coined by him and variously
translated as “truth force,” “soul force” or “clinging to truth,” generally used
in reference to nonviolent resistance or a specific nonviolent campaign. I am
committed to listen to Gandhi as a trusted guide with concrete instructions
relating to my here-and-now, day-to-day life. Following February 16, 2003, this
quest became particularly focused. I felt compelled to understand both the gaping
hole I experienced that day and the nature of its possible remedy. I hoped
Gandhi’s life and work would offer guidance. And in due time, I found this
guidance in the space of a single paragraph penned by Gandhi at a critical
point in his life.

February 27, 1930, two short weeks prior to launching the Salt Satyagraha, a
pivotal episode in India’s struggle for independence from the British Empire,
Mohandas Gandhi wrote a short article for a national publication. The article
was called “When I am Arrested.” While the Salt Satyagraha has been the subject
of immense interest to scholars and activists, this article appears to have
gone mostly unnoticed. This is understandable, given the drama of the “great
march to the sea” and the massive civil disobedience that followed it.

The British, in order to maintain their monopoly
on the salt industry, had prohibited any unsanctioned production or sale of
salt. Gandhi defied British imperialism by leading a 385-kilometre trek to the
Dandi seashore and lifting a now-iconic fistful of salt above his head in
contravention of the salt laws. It stands as one of the most potent touchstones
in the history of nonviolent resistance.

It’s hard not to get lost in the drama, power
and personality of the Salt Satyagraha, but if we look closely at “When I am
Arrested,” we catch a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the inner workings and
design of India’s independence movement. Gandhi published the article to put
the masses of India on alert and to give them a final set of instructions. It
also offered an impassioned battle cry, culminating with Gandhi’s declaration
that this time not a single nonviolent devotee of Indian independence “should
find himself free or alive at the end of the effort.”

Within this call to action I found the paragraph
I believe we activists most need to hear. The paragraph refers to the ashram
that was Gandhi’s home, a place where religious devotees lived, raised their
food and worshipped together. It was also the starting point of the march to
the sea.

“So far as I am
concerned, my intention is to start the movement only through the inmates of
the Ashram and those who have submitted to its discipline and assimilated
the spirit of its methods. Those, therefore, who will offer battle at
the very commencement will be unknown to fame. Hitherto the Ashram has
been deliberately kept in reserve in order that by a fairly long course of
discipline it might acquire stability. I feel, that if the Satyagraha
Ashram is to deserve the great confidence that has been reposed in it and the
affection lavished upon it by friends, the time has arrived for it to
demonstrate the qualities implied in the word satyagraha. I feel that our
self-imposed restraints have become subtle indulgences, and the prestige
acquired has provided us with privileges and conveniences of which we may be
utterly unworthy. These have been thankfully accepted in the hope that some day
we would be able to give a good account of ourselves in terms of satyagraha.
And if at the end of nearly 15 years of its existence, the Ashram cannot give
such a demonstration, it and I should disappear, and it would be well for the
nation, the Ashram and me.”

What struck me that day in San Francisco, on the
eve of war, was that we peace-minded folk were entirely unprepared for the
battle at hand. Our so-called “movement” lacked the depth necessary to sustain
it. It came as no surprise, then, to see that after the bombs started dropping,
we returned, with few exceptions, to our lives—to business, “progressive”
though it may have been, as usual. Though committed nonviolent practitioners
dappled the crowd that day, the marching thousands were not grounded by the
presence of a core group such as that which gave such depth to India’s
independence movement or the civil rights movement, which drew heavily on
Gandhi’s teaching and example. Try as we might to organize faithful and effective
nonviolent resistance, if we proceed as though the battle doesn’t require that
kind of depth, discipline and training, our efforts will necessarily continue
to come up short. And where does such depth come from?

In Gandhi’s article, “When I Am Arrested,” he
offers us a valuable clue: 78 people prepared for 15 years. In community life,
they underwent the training of spiritual discipline and constructive work of
social uplift. Though they were the core of the Salt Satyagraha, those 78 did
not carry it out on their own. The great power of that movement was
many-layered, involving literally millions of individuals responding to the
direction of a superlative leader. But the role of that core of 78 was
essential to the Salt Satyagraha’s success and the ultimate success of India’s
struggle for independence.

If we want to truly benefit from Gandhi’s
guidance here, we need to enter into a deep and soulful investigation of this
ashram experience, and discover what Gandhi meant when he said that the Salt Satyagraha
would only be started by those who had “submitted to its discipline and
assimilated the spirit of its methods.” Gandhi calls for true transformation, a
trading in of old lives for new. What is remarkable about Gandhi the teacher is
not that he introduced novel concepts—he said himself that nonviolence is as
“old as the hills”—but that he so deftly systematized the transformative work
of building a nonviolent life, and that he did it in a way that can be
effectively translated for our time and place.

Gandhi’s approach to nonviolence, which was the
foundation of his ashram communities, points us to interrelated, mutually
supportive spheres of experimentation. Nonviolence scholar Gene Sharp notes
three such spheres in Gandhi’s writings: personal transformation, constructive
program (work of social uplift and renewal), and political action, prioritized
in that order. At the heart of Gandhi’s approach to social change is his
understanding that the building blocks of a nonviolent society are the vibrant,
productive, nonviolent lives of individual women and men.

Effective nonviolent political action does not
spring from a vacuum; it grows out of daily living grounded in personal and
communal spiritual practice, and in constructive service to one’s immediate and
surrounding communities. Nonviolence on the political stage is only as powerful
as the personal and community-based nonviolence of those who engage in it.
The importance of the ashram experience flows from this understanding.

This fundamental aspect of the Gandhian design
almost entirely eludes us in our North American context. Here, we most often
employ the reverse order of Gandhi’s threefold approach, seeking a political
response first, the building up of a constructive alternative second and the
stuff of all-out personal reformation third, if at all. This reversal allows
North American activists of faith to sidestep some of the most foundational
aspects of Gandhi’s nonviolent recipe: namely, radical simplicity, solidarity with
the poor and disciplined spiritual practice.

Because we do not believe nonviolence requires
these of us, we miss the necessity of the ashram experience. No one can build a
nonviolent life as an individual. I may be able to practice some measure of
piecemeal nonviolence more or less on my own, but if I’m going to pluck the
seeds of war from every part of my life that I possibly can, if I am going to
renounce and abandon the violence of my first-world way of life, I need to be
surrounded by others whose knowledge, wisdom and experience will complement
mine, and whose example and company will inspire me to stay the course.

The 78 members of Satyagraha Ashram who were the
cadre of “foot soldiers” Gandhi chose to be the nucleus of the Salt Satyagraha
were doing all of this for one another for a period of nearly 15 years. This
prepared them for the high level of self-sacrifice that Gandhi foresaw when he
said, “Not a single believer in nonviolence as an article of faith for the
purpose of achieving India’s goal should find himself free or alive at the end
of the effort.” Until faith communities embrace this level of commitment and
clarity of purpose, it is up to those of us who feel called in this direction
to seek each other out.

We need to hold one another accountable to this
magnificent charge. We need to manifest our shared strength and leadership. We
need to move together toward the key ingredients in Gandhi’s nonviolent recipe—radical
simplicity, solidarity with the poor and disciplined spiritual practice. As we
walk that long, disciplined, grace-filled path we and our religious communities
will be rightly stretched. And in time, I trust that we will be gradually
readied for sustained nonviolent struggle.

Syndicated from
article originally appeared in Geez magazine. Geez
is an independent quarterly Canadian magazine dealing with issues of
spirituality, social justice, religion, and progressive cultural
politics. A version of this article appeared in Friends Journal, April


[1]What we can really learn from Gandhi? | openDemocracy ....[2]File:Marche sel.jpg - Wikimedia Commons ....[3]Creative Commons — CC0 1.0 Universal ....[4] ....[5]Geez Magazine | Contemplative Cultural Resistance ....[6]What we can really learn from Gandhi? | openDemocracy ....