Walking with Gandhi

Once again I’m thinking back to the 16th of February, 2003.

By that time, my own journey and experiments with nonviolence had formed my lukewarm (at best) opinion of the marches and rallies currently in fashion. But it appeared to me that February 16 was not a day to let my skepticism reign. War was imminent and people were taking to the streets. I knew that 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 proverbial door, I did step out. With an earnest and open heart, I stepped out.

Downtown, within blocks of our Quaker meetinghouse, I met up with a small group of Friends from my monthly meeting. Together we wove in and among thousands upon thousands of our fellow San Franciscans, adding our voices to a resounding, unified no, collectively and clearly pronounced in the face of the looming U.S. 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 power, 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 on February 16 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. The painful isolation I felt was of a piece with a powerful, newly focused sense of sight. 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, passion, and purpose, it was plain to me that something essential was missing—that there was, in fact, a gaping void at the heart of the production. Deep down I knew that this marvelous day was a day of certain failure, that our massive mobilization to stop the war would inevitably and necessarily fade, and it would do so quickly.

Like every great prophet, Mohandas Gandhi is customarily placed on a pedestal. We revere him as a patron saint of nonviolence, a mahatma (the Sanskrit term of veneration meaning "a 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 all the while remaining free and clear from what he actually taught.

So it was that Gandhi himself bristled at the very thought of being called mahatma. In addition to his own doubts about his worthiness of such an accolade, he knew well that such veneration would invariably distract people from what he was actually doing. Gandhi consistently urged his fellow Indians, therefore, not to exalt him but to look instead to the nuts and bolts of nonviolent transformation.

Over the last decade I’ve seen my primary work as that of inviting Gandhi down from the pedestal where he has been installed. I’ve studied Gandhi closely during this time, holding fast to a commitment to listen to him as a real-life teacher—a trusted guide with concrete instructions relating to my day-to-day life, right here, right now in our particular context.

Following February 16, 2003, this journey with Gandhi became especially focused and concentrated for me. I felt compelled as never before to understand both the gaping hole I experienced that day, and the nature of its remedy. I had no doubt, as I set myself to the task, that Gandhi’s life and work would offer me the guidance I needed, if only I had the eyes, heart, and patience to recognize it. It is a powerful and sweet mystery to me that, in due time, in the space of a single paragraph, Gandhi’s trustworthy counsel would come clear.

On February 27, 1930, two short weeks prior to launching the Salt Satyagraha, a pivotal episode in India’s decades-long struggle for independence from the British Empire, Mohandas Gandhi penned a short article for national publication titled "When I Am Arrested." While the Salt Satyagraha has been the subject of immense interest to historians, peace scholars, and nonviolent activists alike, the significance of this article appears to go mostly unnoticed.

This is certainly understandable given the drama of the "great march to the sea" that began the Salt Satyagraha, and the massive civil disobedience that followed it. Gandhi’s open defiance of the British Empire, and of imperialism itself, dramatized by his 240-mile trek to the Dandi seashore, and his lifting that now iconic fistful of salt above his head, represents what is perhaps the most potent touchstone in the history of nonviolent resistance. It’s difficult not to become fixated on the power and drama of the scene, and to be swept away by the greatness of the man who orchestrated it.

But, if we look closely at "When I Am Arrested," we catch a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the inner workings and design of the Salt Satyagraha, and India’s independence movement itself—a glimpse of critical importance to Quakers and other people of faith in our current U.S. context.

With his plan of action in place, Gandhi published "When I Am Arrested" to put the masses of India on alert, and to give them a final set of instructions. That said, this short article reads not so much as a list of instructions as an impassioned battle cry, culminating with Gandhi’s declaration that a critical moment is at hand, and that this time "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." "When I Am Arrested" carried a charge to every corner of the nation, preparing the masses for their most important confrontation to date with their imperial occupiers.

It is in the midst of this clarion call to action that Gandhi placed the paragraph we of the U.S. nonviolence community most need to hear:

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 so powerfully that day in San Francisco on the eve of our country’s shameful reinvasion of Iraq was the clear and simple truth that we were entirely unprepared for the battle then at hand. In a word, our so-called "movement" lacked the depth necessary to sustain it. It came as no surprise, therefore, to see that after that new phase of the war in Iraq began, with a very few exceptions, we U.S. Quakers and other religious progressives basically returned to our lives—business, "progressive" though it may be, as usual.

That day, though committed nonviolent practitioners certainly dappled the teeming crowd, the marching thousands were not grounded by the presence of a core group such as that which galvanized and gave such depth to India’s independence movement, exemplified so strikingly in the historic Salt Satyagraha. Nor do we currently have a core like that which was the heart of our nation’s own civil rights movement, whose own strength drew so 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 at hand doesn’t require that kind of depth, discipline, and training, our efforts to undo the domination system will necessarily continue to come up terribly short.

And where does such depth come from? In "When I Am Arrested" Gandhi offers us a most valuable clue: 78 people prepared by 15 years of community life, undergoing the shared training of spiritual discipline and constructive work of social uplift, were held "in reserve" for the moment made manifest by the Salt Satyagraha. This core, these 78, the very nucleus of the Salt March, is deeply significant to those of us seeking to turn the tide in our present context. Please do not misunderstand me to be saying that those 78 carried the Salt Satyagraha on their own. Not at all. The great power of that movement was obviously many-layered, involving literally millions of individuals responding to the direction of a superlative leader. What I am saying, however, is that the role of that core of 78 was essential to Salt Satyagraha’s success and the ultimate success of India’s nonviolent 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 does not mince words or actions to make plain that true transformation calls us to trade in our old lives for new ones. What is so remarkable about Gandhi the teacher is not that he introduced some novel new concept—he said himself that nonviolence is as "old as the hills"—but that he so deftly systematized the transformative work of building a new, nonviolent life, and that he did it in a way that can be effectively translated for our time and place.

In brief, Gandhi’s approach to nonviolence, which was the foundation of his ashram communities, points us to three interrelated, mutually supportive spheres of experimentation. Gene Sharp helpfully distilled these three spheres as personal transformation, constructive program (work of social uplift and renewal), and political action. These three faces of nonviolence are best presented in that order because it most clearly reflects how Gandhi himself prioritized them.

At the heart of Gandhi’s approach to social change was his understanding that the building blocks of a nonviolent society are the vibrant, productive, nonviolent lives of individual men and women. It follows that a truly nonviolent movement is nothing more or less than the tapestry of such lives woven together. 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—a fundamental aspect of the Gandhian design that eludes us in our U.S. 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 personal, spiritual awakening third, if at all. This misguided reversal allows U.S. Quakers to sidestep, along with the whole of the peace movement, 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 that nonviolence requires these of us, we remain blind to the necessity of the ashram experience.

No one can build an integrated 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 each 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. Indeed, if I’m going to build a life that is truly part of the solution, I need friends to show me the ropes of principles and practices spanning the entire spectrum of Gandhi’s threefold approach to nonviolent living.

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 this for one another for a period of nearly 15 years. After those years of diligent practice, fraught as they must have been with the usual measure of human ups, downs, breakthroughs, and shortfalls, Gandhi discerned that these 78 satyagrahis were ready for the battle at hand, knowing full well the high level of self-sacrifice it would require.

Not a single believer in non-violence 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 Friends meetings embrace this level of commitment and clarity of purpose, it is up to those Friends who feel God’s hand leading in this promising direction to seek each other out. We need to begin holding one another accountable to this magnificent charge. We need to begin manifesting our shared strength and leadership. I have no doubt that as we do so our Meetings will be readily supportive, and that they will be deeply enlivened and strengthened in the process.

The key ingredients in Gandhi’s nonviolent recipe—the stuff of radical simplicity, solidarity with the poor, and disciplined spiritual practice, for example—are not merely options nonviolent practitioners can choose or choose against according to personal preference. So it is that I’m here again, moving among the teeming crowd in our turn-of-the-century U.S. context, searching for others longing and ready to embrace the call to walk a long, disciplined, grace-filled path with Gandhi.

My hand is extended to you.

Chris Moore-Backman

Chris Moore-Backman is a member of San Francisco (Calif.) Meeting. His own experiments with nonviolence have included human rights accompaniment in Colombia and an ongoing fast from the use of private automobiles. Chris leads workshops on the teachings of Gandhi as they relate to our current U.S. context, and he is actively seeking fellow Gandhians to co-create a U.S.-based spiritual community of nonviolent resistance.