Friday, October 2, 2009

What lessons can Malaysians learn from Mahatma Gandhi and Satyagraha?

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948
photo from here

Today, 2 October 2009 is the 140th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi. In India it is celebrated as Gandhi Jayanti, and internationally it is celebrated as the International Day of Non-Violence. Besides commemorating the birth of such a human being, what lessons can we learn from his life and struggle, and why would they be of use to us?

In my humble opinion, the Mahatma's greatest achievement was in leading oppressed people to freedom. This is a very difficult undertaking, requiring great courage and ability, physical, intellectual, emotional and moral. The oppressors whom he faced were very powerful and ruled with an iron fist, yet the Mahatma was able to bring about change in a peaceful and ethical way. In a world where "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter", and where the ends are held to have justified the means, the Mahatma stands out as a shining example of how one man can make a difference for the better. As Albert Einstein said of him, "Generations will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth."

What were the personal characteristics that set the Mahatma apart? I believe that he had a very strong sense of values and principles by which he lived and by which he guided the struggle. Among these principles were (adapted from Wikipedia):
  • Truth: Gandhi dedicated his life to the wider purpose of discovering truth, or Satya. Gandhi summarized his beliefs first when he said "God is Truth". He would later change this statement to "Truth is God". Thus, Satya (Truth) in Gandhi's philosophy is "God".
  • Non-violence: Although Mahatama Gandhi was not the originator of the principle of non-violence, he was the first to apply it in the political field on a huge scale. In his own words, "There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for."
  • Simplicity: Gandhi earnestly believed that a person involved in social service should lead a simple life. His simplicity began by renouncing the western lifestyle he was leading in South Africa. He called it "reducing himself to zero," which entailed giving up unnecessary expenditure, embracing a simple lifestyle and washing his own clothes.
  • Faith: Gandhi was born a Hindu and practised Hinduism all his life, deriving most of his principles from Hinduism. As a common Hindu, he believed all religions to be equal, and rejected all efforts to convert him to a different faith. Gandhi believed that at the core of every religion was truth and love (compassion, nonviolence and the Golden Rule). He also questioned what he saw as hypocrisy, malpractices, and dogma in all religions, including his own, and he was a tireless advocate for social reform in religion. Later in his life when he was asked whether he was a Hindu, he replied: "Yes I am. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew."
These principles became the core of Satyagraha, the philosophy and practice of nonviolent resistance that led to freedom. Gandhi described it as follows:

I have also called it love-force or soul-force. In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.[2]

"The Satyagrahi’s object is to convert, not to coerce, the wrong-doer." Success is defined as cooperating with the opponent to meet a just end that the opponent is unwittingly obstructing. The opponent must be converted, at least as far as to stop obstructing the just end, for this cooperation to take place.

When using satyagraha in a large-scale political struggle involving civil disobedience, Gandhi believed that the satyagrahis must undergo training to ensure discipline. He wrote that it is “only when a people have proved their active loyalty by obeying the many laws of the State that they acquire the right of Civil Disobedience.”[11]

He therefore made part of the discipline that satyagrahis:

  1. appreciate the other laws of the State and obey them voluntarily
  2. tolerate these laws, even when they are inconvenient
  3. be willing to undergo suffering, loss of property, and to endure the suffering that might be inflicted on family and friends[11]
Gandhi also proposed this series of rules for satyagrahis to follow in a resistance campaign:[8]
  1. harbour no anger
  2. suffer the anger of the opponent
  3. never retaliate to assaults or punishment; but do not submit, out of fear of punishment or assault, to an order given in anger
  4. voluntarily submit to arrest or confiscation of your own property
  5. if you are a trustee of property, defend that property (non-violently) from confiscation with your life
  6. do not curse or swear
  7. do not insult the opponent
  8. neither salute nor insult the flag of your opponent or your opponent’s leaders
  9. if anyone attempts to insult or assault your opponent, defend your opponent (non-violently) with your life
  10. as a prisoner, behave courteously and obey prison regulations (except any that are contrary to self-respect)
  11. as a prisoner, do not ask for special favourable treatment
  12. as a prisoner, do not fast in an attempt to gain conveniences whose deprivation does not involve any injury to your self-respect
  13. joyfully obey the orders of the leaders of the civil disobedience action
  14. do not pick and choose amongst the orders you obey; if you find the action as a whole improper or immoral, sever your connection with the action entirely
  15. do not make your participation conditional on your comrades taking care of your dependents while you are engaging in the campaign or are in prison; do not expect them to provide such support
  16. do not become a cause of communal quarrels
  17. do not take sides in such quarrels, but assist only that party which is demonstrably in the right; in the case of inter-religious conflict, give your life to protect (non-violently) those in danger on either side
  18. avoid occasions that may give rise to communal quarrels
  19. do not take part in processions that would wound the religious sensibilities of any community
Why are these lessons relevant to us Malaysians? Isn't our situation in Malaysia in some ways similar to that faced by Gandhi in India? We too live in a multiracial and multireligious country, we too are ruled by what is essesntially a colonial government - one where the hard work and resources of the rakyat are expropriated for the use of those in power and their cronies. We too are denied our basic human rights, and we too are kept in control by law enforcement system that serves it's political masters, not justice (ironically, the descendant of the same law enforcement that Gandhi suffered). Perhaps our most striking similarity is that we too are oppressed because we have not been able to transcend our racial and religious divisions; our oppressors have effectively divided and ruled over us because of it.

I believe that if we Malaysians want to bring much needed change to our country in a sustainable, peaceful and ethical way, we need to practice the Mahatma's principles. Where do we start? In the words of the Mahatma himself: "You must be the change you want to see in the world."

Gandhi at Dandi, South Gujarat, picking salt on the beach at the end of the Salt March, 5 April 1930. Photograph from here

Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram, the Mahatma's favourite bhajan

Mahatma Gandhi speaking: God is Life, Truth, Light, Love and The supreme Good

Malaysian Heart

No comments:

Post a Comment

How to Paste Text into Comment Boxes

Google seems to have disabled pasting text (including ctrl-v) into blogger comments boxes in Firefox. The good news is that:
1. You can still copy paste using Internet Explorer (I successfully tried it with IE7)
2. With Firefox, you can still "Drag and Drop" text into the comment form. I have successfully dragged and dropped text from MS Word, websites (HTML) and from ScribeFire (plain text and HTML). Just do the following:

a) reduce the size of the window you want to take the text from, and place it near the comment box
b) Highlight the required text with cursor
c) Click on the highlighted text and drag it over to the comment box and drop it there.

Happy commenting!