Friday, May 4, 2012

‘The Highly Unreasonable Soul’ Gandhi’s Satyagraha: Universal Spiritual Unity in Our Increasingly Fragmented Modern World

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has been called many things, from reactionary and revolutionary, to ‘great soul’ and ‘Father of India.’ Few modern reformers have been of such great interest to the Indian people, scholars, activists, politicians, artists, musicians, moderates and radicals alike, yet he is still often misunderstood. While his mother religion was indeed Hinduism, many ‘Hindus’ demonized him as overly sympathetic to Muslims, leading up to his assassination and subsequent martyrdom. Still others deemed him an antiquated, stubborn fool, while some, even today, call him a modernist. I assert he is absolutely unreasonable. Though such striking controversy may never cease, any which way you look at the man, his influence upon modernity is unmistakable, least of which by his profound legacy of satyagraha, ‘persistence of truth’ or ‘soul-force.’ Surpassing a theological philosophy of political action, satyagraha’s affects are more broadly universal than may be readily apparent. Besides the application of non-violent resistance in countless movements since Gandhi’s ultimately effective Hind swaraj, the philosophically relevant theological reforms that ahimsa, or non-violence, universally reawakened in Islam, Christianity & Hinduism alike, derived from the universal Truth of sacred unity, are an essential process of human [r]evolution. Born of compassion’s spiritual fundamentals as ultimate means of Gandhian devotion of Truth, ahimsa satyagraha is a universally relevant reform—necessarily intent to help remedy our increasingly globalized disunity in material modernity. Peaceful, civil resistance or satyagraha, promoting relative coexistence, maintains peace as God’s ultimate end—a universal in any and all religious manifestations. Controversially, then, neither exclusively Hindu, religious nor political, the universally invaluable Sri Mahatma Gandhi-ji is far more fundamentally spiritual. To be sure, Gandhi and his philosophical legacy of satyagraha originate in primarily Hindu religious doctrine, though not of established institutional religion. He was introduced to the profoundly influential Hindu epic of the Bhagavad-Gita, “The Song Celestial,” while studying law in England, and it struck him as “of priceless worth…the book par excellence for the knowledge of Truth.” Still, only finally studying it some years later, its impression upon him was not fully realized until his self-called ‘experiments with truth’ manifested his first satyagrahas in South Africa, though as yet unnamed. By 1927, he interpreted the fundamentals of the Gita’s Hinduism as “the gospel of karma or work, the gospel of bhakti or devotion and the gospel of jnana or knowledge…[with] the gospel of service [as] the basis of all.” Reconciling its traditionally popular Indian kshatriya warrior-culture insistence upon the importance of dharma or duty with the universal spiritual desire for peace, with a seemingly post-modern, highly sophisticated moral vocabulary of, above all, “ahimsa (non-violence), [and] satya (truth),” he updated traditional Hinduism. Furthermore, he wrote that, while “reading many things, the Bhagavad-Gita is becoming more and more the only invaluable guide, the only dictionary of reference, in which I find all sorrows, all the troubles, all the trials arranged in alphabetical order with exquisite solutions.” The Gita’s importance to his spiritual growth notwithstanding, Gandhi’s discontent with all static religions, his own no exception, lives on to this day in the universal spirituality of satyagraha. Accordingly, Sir Edwin Arnold’s great translation of a seminal verse of the Gita’s second chapter was deeply impressed upon Gandhi’s mind: If one Ponders on objects of the sense, there springs Attraction; from attraction grows desire, Desire flames to fierce passion, passion breeds Recklessness; then the memory—all betrayed— Lets noble purpose go, and saps the mind, Till purpose, mind and man are all undone. Profoundly scientific, this particular classical Hindu observation of sensory experience, reflecting the psychological realizations of traditional, protestant Indian Buddhism, rather than a strictly compulsory doctrinal religious dogma, as in supposedly ‘conservative,’ ‘orthodox,’ or ‘fundamental’ religious expressions, is a clear and simple diagnosis of the source of life, death, the cycle of rebirth, illusion and suffering—all essential components of samsara or reality. Ultimately intent upon the absolute aim of moksha or liberation, rather than Hinduism’s traditional emphasis upon dharma, duty or order, Gandhi’s very modern spirituality, as a necessary reform to classical Hindu interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita, is anything but exclusively Hindu. Instead, Gandhi’s appeal was universally spiritual, steeped in the diverse theosophical climate of contemporaries. Indeed, satyagraha and ahimsa also derive of the Christian Bible & Islam’s Qur’an. Despite the global history of violent religious conflict in modernity, every religion promotes non-violence as the spiritual basis of sacred, universal unity. In fact, Gandhi’s reforms are nothing new, but they developed from the natural evolutionary progression of spirituality as necessary responses to the reality of our increasingly fragmented, modern and material world globalization. As is evident in the Gita, the Holy Qur’an too can be interpreted in many different, often contradictory ways. Besides post-Cold War American demonization of Islam via so-called ‘fundamentalist’ radicals, the religion’s historical origins in the Prophet’s violent revolution, subsequent sectarianism and imperial conquest, Islam’s traditional spiritual fundamentals are inherently non-violent. Though Gandhi may have been reluctant to explore Islam’s less familiar spirituality in his experiments with truth, due in part to India’s popular Hindutva movement and subsequently Hindu nationalism leading to Partition, his Muslim sympathies were an apparent, ultimate cause of his martyrdom. At that, the Qur’an most certainly also reflects the core concepts of Gandhi’s non-violent satyagraha: There are some whose views on this life may please you: they even call on God to vouch for that which is in their hearts; whereas in fact they are the deadliest of opponents. No sooner do they leave you than they hasten to do evil in the land (fasad), destroying crops and cattle. God does not love evil. ~ The Koran 2:205 The Qur’anic notion of fasad or ‘evil acts disrupting civil society,’ presented here, reflects the Sanskrit term himsa, violence or injury—ahimsa being its opposite. Clearly discouraged, fasad is violence against God’s end. For Islam, the ultimate end being paradise, a sense of spiritual progress is crucially imminent—with non-fasad as the only necessary means of ascendance. Similarly, Gandhi’s promotion of ahimsa as the only means that may never distort God’s end, derived of his unwavering spiritual devotion, bhakti, is service by the only necessary means of satyagraha. His autobiography further illuminates his steadfast devotion to service of his perceived relative truth in guidance towards unity with God‘s Truth. In such a way, appealing to universal, spiritual concepts present in other religious traditions besides Hinduism, even as controversially as Islam, Gandhi’s legacy of satyagraha and ahimsa may be promoted to a much broader audience. A very important audience for India’s more immediate, practical goal of Hind swaraj or self-rule, via revolution for independence from Great Britain, Gandhi’s universal appeal to Christians world-wide is the primary basis for their ultimate success. Initially bored by a lack of comprehension of the Jewish Bible’s Old Testament, Gandhi, pursuing to read further, was finally struck with awe by the Christian New Testament, especially Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, claiming, “The verses, ‘But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man take away thy coat let him have the cloak too’ delighted me beyond measure...That renunciation was the highest form of religion appealed to me greatly (Essential Writings I.a.27).” Appealing to his sense of selfless self-sacrifice in service of God by satyagraha, Christianity clearly also advocates the spiritual fundamental of non-violence. With an all too familiar history of violent religious conflict, Christian religion, from the Crusades, imperialism and all the way to the current Zionist holy war in the Middle East, has displayed similarly unfaithful service to the spiritual fundamental of non-violence, and yet most Christians have historically remained spiritually steadfast, persisting in Truth. Jesus and his followers, sectarian Jewish martyrs of early Christianity practiced non-violence as a means of ultimately peaceful reform. Nearly 2000 years later, Gandhi, employing the best vocabulary available to him, made a name for such selfless self-sacrifice, updating its universally spiritual appeal in modernity. Though clearly a longer historical legacy than any one man, non-violent resistance, coined satyagraha by Gandhi, is a necessarily essential adaptation for spiritual virility in a world consumed by static, institutional religious dogma. Few have continued the legacy since Sri Mahatma Gandhi-ji better than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the face of spiritual crisis in the form of racial hatred and discrimination disguised as white American Protestantism, King too ascended to the moral high-ground of non-violent resistance. Also ultimately martyred, King was discontent with the religious and political status quo, seeking to reform not only American race-relations, but foreign policy and imperialism as well. Opposed all around by the powers that be, reform often seems impossible without sacrifice, and the Christian dialectic of Jesus’ divine grace is a perfect metaphorical reflection of those few great souls brave enough to surrender even their own lives for the greater good of All. Reality, infinitely repeating cyclical spirals in all directions, makes sense in the context of history, but must be amended in every instant to remain relevant. This is the source of spiritual power over institutional religion, however subtle. Forced underground, spirituality operates mysteriously, its mystic roots overshadowed by the recklessly towering hegemony of institutional religion. Cognizant of the frightening power of spirituality to established institutions, in continual protection, reformers must shroud it in the clothes of the culture. The material reality of modern globalization, producing the system which supports it, then, in superficial consumerism, cannot see beyond clothing, even ignoring it entirely, if only because it isn’t clothed in designer brands. But esoteric spirituality has long been the source of social fluidity, adaptation and progress in society, well before Sri Mahatma Gandhi-ji, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, any reformer or reform movement and any established institution. It is the nearest thing to permanence imaginable, and yet always just out of reach. Indeed, the insistent self-suffering and sacrifice of Gandhi’s satyagraha, deriving spiritual power from ahimsa, is the ultimate, absolute tool in God’s divine purpose. No matter one’s perspective of reality, the universal spiritual fundamentals of every religion dictate the ultimate success of non-violent resistance or non-cooperation. Lost in selfish materialism, fragmented from sacred unity in modern globalization, Western insistence upon human rationality is wholly misguided. Henry David Thoreau, a great Western influence and contemporary correspondence of Gandhi’s, is attributed with saying, “Rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness, give me Truth.” Mirroring Gandhi’s oft-stubborn insistence upon Truth alone as God, and a clear product of modern disunity, we will obviously never be capable of perceiving any perfect absolutes. This is where modern science and reform alike inevitably fails against the seemingly sheer stability of established institution. Recognizing the limits of human reason, those humble enough to admit ignorance and defeat will forever surrender to those institutions certain in their convictions, however flawed. It takes something of a miracle for reform to succeed. Most often disguised as chance, such miracles have manifested many forms throughout history—definitive proof of the power of spirituality. Intuitively beyond reason, there must be some divine force behind progress, for uncertainty knows no limits. If science has taught anything, as surely it must, it’s that we can never know everything with absolute certainty, and it is this very mystery which sustains Us, as spiritual beings in a human experience. Not limited to any particular religion, every spiritual tradition, through devotional mysticism, has realized this in some fashion or another. Ultimately, despite our purely cultural differences, from our biology and language, to spirituality, humans are far more fundamentally similar than different. In spite of this fact, we perceive differences between religions because we are indeed only human, trained to differentiate between things in order to learn. It is a product of evolutionary necessity, and yet, ultimately, we all return to the same source. Born of stardust, nothing escapes destruction, but our learned sense of self clings to life as if that is all we know. Few may ever realize Truth, but the Buddhist concepts of impermanence, emptiness and oneness capture the spiritually essential fundamentals of Gandhi’s manifest satyagraha. Clearly, he is everything except exclusively political, religious or Hindu. That he applied Hindu terms in a Hindu context goes to show the strength culture has over us. Further, that the same Hindu terms in a similar Hindu context may produce the violence of Hindu nationalists illuminates our incredible abilities to rationally justify anything with language. Indeed, with the very tools with which Gandhi crafted satyagraha, so too countless ethical transgressions are possible, and likely also probable. Unity, in its overwhelming dual persistence, is reflected in the Chinese Daoist symbol of yin and yang, two opposed dualities contained within all things. Similarly articulated in the Hindu pantheon, by complimentary masculine-feminine energies, and subsequent Advaita Vedanta, non-dual Hindu philosophy, the reflection of the macrocosm within the microcosm is further proof of the absolute Truth of unity. So very fundamental to reality is this spiritual Truth, that intuition surpasses any reasonable attempt at comprehension. Ultimately, faith is an absolute necessity of our very existence. Faith, however, does not mean believing in what we cannot perceive. That we can intuitively perceive universal unity is a testament to the creative spirit of humanity. Rather than mere pieces of a larger process of infinitely progressing spirals, we are all, in fact, the spiral ourselves, containing every energy present in the whole, entire Universe. If that’s not enough to wrap our minds around, quantum physics shows that every single quantum particle composing us, and everything around us, is infinitely dense, containing every bit of information manifested of all the energy in the Universe. No one may ever be able to conclusively prove this mind-bender of a claim, but every religious tradition intuitively realizes this universal Truth, far above and beyond our human capacity for reason. Gandhi as proof, often the most absurd, impossible ideas require someone unreasonable enough to manifest in an increasingly fragmented modern reality. Indeed, much of the technology most would have likely supposed impossible even only a few years ago has since been made possible by the highly unreasonable Steve Jobs of Apple! What the Buddha termed ‘skillful means’ and the lost Gospel of Thomas cleverly coded alike are the essential spiritual fundamentals of every religion—the esoteric mystical foundations manifesting static, established institutional religion. It is the very mystery of existence eluding our every attempt at comprehension, and yet omnipresent, surrounding all phenomena of mind. The paradoxical suffering self-sacrifice as the only means towards peace, paradise or God’s end, whatever your particular religious flavor, is a universal spiritual aspect pervading our being. Though often taught that life is painful, but suffering is optional—a choice—Gandhi and his legacy of satyagraha inspire hope that, despite life’s inevitable suffering, Spirit may forever endure, universally united in the ultimate, absolute Truth of God. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O all Hail, what an awakening.
Baby Einstein signing off. Thanks for reading!

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