Social Action


gandhiOne of the great results of mobilizing a community of any kind is its ability to take action towards a specific goal.  Most recently we saw it with the campaign to elect President Barak Obama.  However, social action has been a part of civilization for ages.  I have always been fascinated by India’s Independence movement.  It is not only rich in content about the social world, but rich in how a community can mobilize to take action.  Gandhi’s campaign not only inspired people into action, but it was a quest for something so much more than independence.  Our actions are reflection of who we are, and who we are is shaped by our actions.

When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi died, his possessions consisted of two pieces of homespun cloth, one pair of spectacles and his pocket watch.  He came as close as possible to obtaining his goal of facing death as a zero.  It is commonly noted by many that this simple bald headed man single handedly pushed the British out of India. Gandhi brought down an empire, suspended the independence movement and ended civil war without owning any lands and holding any public office. Ahimsa and Satyagraha were more that just socio-political reform, rather, they were a way of life, they were his religion, and they were the quest for truth.  For Gandhi social reform and his spiritual beliefs were one in the same.  It was the intersection of the larger social world and an individual’s everyday living habits.

To Gandhi India was not just a place but an idea.  The idea being that the nation-state should be dedicated to the quest for Truth.  The every day norms, mores, daily rituals would be dedicated to the search for Truth.  Gandhi’s idea also was such that the quest would be interwoven with social action.  Taking action is very important.  I want to note here that Gandhi never advocated that people do nothing in the face of adversity.  Many misunderstand non-violence, with non-action.  Gandhi was very clear, that every society and every community must not only take action, but take action that was in the pursuit of Truth.  Action and Truth would work together rather than existing separately.  The society would not have the government, the individual, and religion existing as separate entities rather; the nation would be a place where the three would be constantly interacting in an intricate dialogue with each other.  For Gandhi, this idea would also dictate his personal life.  The quest for Truth not only takes place in the larger social schema but in the every day lives of all people.

His belief comes from the Hindu teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita.  An important concept of the Gita is DharmaDharma is the playing field in which all living beings play out their destiny.  Through Dharma the individual makes any series of decisions that will determine the outcome of their soul in the eyes of Truth, or God.  The complex concept of Dharma also includes the individual’s duty, religion, law, and most importantly one’s life path.  The heuristic conception of Truth is the most important aspect of Gandhi.  He derives his understanding of Truth and Dharma through his thorough study of the Bhagavad-Gita, the story of the battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravs.  Although many literal interpretations exist of the Gita, I will take a more metaphorical interpretation.  The battle that took place was on the field of Dharma; it was a struggle for Truth.  The lessons of the Gita state that the outcome to one’s actions do not matter, rather, it is the means in which one follows the path to Truth that holds significance.  In the Gita when Arjuna is about to go into battle he decides to stop because he does wish to fight because he realizes that he would be killing members of his own family.  His chariot driver and friend, who happened to be the Lord Krishna, begins to give Arjuna guidance.  Krishna says that he did not exist, neither did neither Arjuna or all the kings they were fighting against.  He continues by stating that life and death really do not exist.  For the soul there is never birth and there is never death.  Life and death are just aspects of the physical world, but the soul is much larger and grander than the physical body.  The soul acquires and discards bodies the way a person would with clothing.  The lines of the Gita that must have truly impacted Gandhi is when Krishna states that as a person may discard their own garments so will the soul and a self-realized soul is not bewildered by these changes.  Therefore, if Arjuna kills these people their bodies will be discarded, but their souls will endure.  As a ksatriya it is Arjuna’s duty to be on the battlefield.  We all have to die some day and it is better to day as a seer of truth rather than one who runs from their duty. Gandhi also believed that Dharma, was also Truth because Truth could only be found through it and the means in which one searched for Truth is the most important aspect of obtaining Truth. Thus, Gandhi believed that India’s quest for Independence was the battlefield that he had to fight upon. Just like Arjuna had a duty to fight, Gandhi had a quest for justice and for Truth.  Through self-realization and the freedom movement of India would not only undergo its quest of institutional Independence, but its quest for Truth.  The important aspect of the quest was that India could have eventually gained independence without Gandhi, but the means at which it did would greatly define India’s future.

The means by which Gandhi would fight for reform and self-realization was Ahimsa, the Hindu word meaning without violence. More than social reform Gandhi thought of it as a way of life.  For example, Gandhi wished to become free from desires, such as sexual desires.  He wanted to overcome sexual desires that by controlling it, and this was a very difficult thing for anyone to do.  Not only did it affect his wife but it also affected his marriage.  Brahmacharia was one of the fundamental lifestyle changes that Gandhi underwent through his path of self-realization.  For Gandhi there was an intricate relationship between his experiments with brahmacharia and his development of the nation.  When one is able to control one’s sexual desires, then one will be able to think and see the world clearly and be a seer of truth.  This also means that the nation in Gandhi’s eyes would be stable because it has achieved control over its desires.

The Indian mores, norms, and material cultural have been greatly influenced by the people relationship with nature and the surrounding physical environment. The belief system is built on the premise that humanity is a part of Nature, as opposed to the ideology that Nature has been created so that humanity could manipulate and control it.  Being a product of a social system that was so strongly interacting with nature, Gandhi’s belief system was greatly influenced by his relationship with Nature.  Thus, Gandhi’s use of the Ashram was so that the search of justice was also part of the pursuit of Truth.  The Ashram allowed the people to interact with nature and live harmoniously so that they would become free from the temptations of material wealth, meat eating, and sexual desires.  Here Gandhi took the traditional way of life as taught by Hindu discourse and fused it into his contemporary life and time.  Here was where Gandhi ran his newspapers, took a stand on untouchability, spun cotton.  The Ashram was an experimental society, in which the very fabric of the social system was committed to finding Truth.  It was almost as if Gandhi founded his own country free from industrialization and modernity.  Gandhi used his beliefs to make reforms in the macro society as well as the micro. Here Gandhi would mold his vision on the Indian nation-state.

The British control of the Indian people forced Indians into abject poverty and despair.  It was the greed and selfishness of the Empire that had lead to the oppression of India.  Imperialism survived on the desire for more wealth and the lack of control in the desire for material wealth drove the Empire to control India, its people and the land.  One that adheres to greed does not see that such things are temporary.  Like when Krishna explains to Arjuna, that such things can easily be discarded but the soul endures, contaminating the soul with such desires the individual is distracting the soul’s natural wish which is to be a part of the force of Truth.  With this story of the Gita lies the framework for Gandhi’s conceptualization of apigraha-non possession.  Spinning was one of the ways that he was able to clothe himself without giving into the desire for possessions.  This is a perfect example of the dialectical nature of Gandhi’s relationship with the macro and the micro.  By using the charka to spin cotton and not wearing European suits, Gandhi was not supporting British economy. When the nation followed they not only protested the Empire’s nature of greed but also controlled their desires for material goods.  Thus, Gandhi’s actions would inspire great social and spiritual leaders of all people and all places in the years to follow.

Satya, which is derived, from the word Sat meaning to be, means Truth and agraha means force and together the words mean a force of Truth. “The word Satyagraha is often most loosely used and is made to cover veiled violence.  But, as the author of the word, I may be allowed to say that it excludes every form of violence, direct or indirect, veiled or unveiled, and whether in thought, word or deed.  “It is a breach of Satyagraha to wish ill to an opponent or to say a harsh word to him or of him with the intention of harming him…” and so if one obstains from violence in the very presence of violence then one is upon the path to Truth (Prabhu and Rao 167-168).   In fact, the true form of Ahimsa will arise when an individual has an opportunity to do the greatest damage and elects not to do so.  For example, when the British were at war Gandhi did not protest and he went as far as to create a medical regiment to support the British.  This is because any action taken against one’s opponent when they are weak is considered an act of violence.  Thus, if Gandhi acted against the British it would be violent because they were already weakened by war.  In the Great Salt March, Gandhi did not allow women to march because of Ahimsa.  The British would not retaliate if women were marching. That means the playing field on which Gandhi is fighting would not be equal and thus this would violate Ahimsa. The art of civil disobedience was not only obtaining justice, but also allowing the perpetrator of in-justice to understand the justice in the cause for which one is fighting.

“With Satya combined with Ahimsa, you can bring the world to your feet.  Satyagraha in its essence is nothing but the introduction of truth and gentleness in the political, i.e., the national, life…” of all people (Prabhu and Rao 167).  Gandhi believed that he alone would never obtain independence for India.  Through the combination of Ahimsa and Satyagraha, the British would see the wisdom in leaving India.  In essence they would have tasted Truth and they would see that British occupation of India was in fact wrong, immoral, un-just, and un-Truthful.  In turn this would change the very fabric of British society, because they would then reject the ways of imperialism.  It is important to note that Gandhi did not oppose the British people, but the British occupation.  He wanted British rule over India to end and when they left he wanted to see them off as friends.  The purpose of bringing Satyagraha and Ahimsa together was to change the lives of Indians politically and to change the lifestyles of all people

Gandhi wished to make many reforms within Indian society.  The status of women and untouchability were also on his agenda.  Again this was an important part of the quest for Truth.  How one lived within one’s given environment is the key to Truth.  There was no soul on the planet that Truth did not touch.  This shows that Gandhi was more than a freedom fighter.  He wanted to change the hearts of all people and to turn the world’s attention away from the industrialized world and towards Truth.  If oppression from the British was wrong, then oppression from one’s compatriots would also be wrong.  Gandhi was not fighting British people, but was fighting British society.  He did not want the same greed, and same quest for material wealth to permeate through India.  As stated in Hind Swaraj, Gandhi states that many Indians want, “…English rule without the Englishman.  You want the tiger’s nature, but not the tiger; that is to say, you would make India English.  And when it becomes English, it will be called not Hindustan but Englistan.  This is not the Swaraj that I want” (Pg27).  Gandhi soon continues to criticize the society by stating that,

This civilization is irreligion, and it has taken such a hold on the people in Europe that those who are in it appear to be half mad.  They lack real physical strength or courage.  They keep up their energy by intoxication.  They can hardly be happy in solitude…this civilization is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self-destroyed (Pg33).

Swaraj was not about fighting the Empire; it was about changing one’s life and one’s perspective on the social world altogether.  The desires of the Empire could plague Indians as well.  Therefore, India would need to create a social system and society that resisted imperialistic desires.

Gandhi was a simple man with questions regarding God, spirituality, and the social world.  However, he found some of the answers through his social reform and self-realization.  His ideas were not immediately created but they evolved over time and with experience.  The field in which Gandhi found Truth was in the Indian freedom movement.  He offered not just freedom, but a way out from the madness that the civilized world has created. Gandhi’s quest was God, and no man can deny the fact that we all are on a quest for the Truth.  This quest has driven all people to define morality, human rights, and ethics.  Gandhi offered humanity with a way of life rather than just a political ideology.  Gandhi believed that what is accomplished in the nation can be accomplished in the home. The only force of change in this world is the force of Truth.

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