The Discipline of Satyagraha

Like many on this site and elsewhere, I have the unsettling feeling that our nation — and the world — are spiraling down a vortex, into the darkness of incremental apocalypse, with no light at the end: an Orwellian world of “universal deceit” where “telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” subject, increasingly, first to marginalization, then to surveillance, suppression, and silencing, either by arrest, detention, or murder.

I first had this sinking feeling over two decades ago, on December 12, 2000 — the day that the Supreme Court (against which there was no appeal) sanctioned the blatant theft of an election; a feeling that grew steadily over the remaining eight years, starting with the 9/11 “attacks,” which any reasonable person, looking at the facts of a sudden, catastrophic collapse of three steel-frame skyscrapers at freefall speed, in clear and blatant violation of the basic laws of thermodynamics, knows to have been a giant hoax, wrought by controlled demolition charges of thermite.

This epochal hoax became the linchpin of yet another massive, ongoing hoax called the “global war on terror,” all swallowed hook, line, and sinker by the corporate media, and used as a rationalization for the successive, brutal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the systematic subversion of the Bill of Rights and the protections of due process — first for so-called “terrorists,” and then, increasingly, for US citizens as well. Yet anyone who dared to question this officially sanctioned narrative — that the “global war on terror” was necessitated by “the terrorist attacks” of 9/11 — was quickly suppressed, ridiculed, and silenced by both the government and the corporate media.

Like a vast number of other Americans, I had high hopes that Obama’s legitimate landslide election would reverse this tide of deterioration of our democracy into a corporate fascist pseudo-democracy — but those hopes were dashed, as Obama proved either too cautious or frightened to challenge the military/corporate/”national security” establishment or their dominant “war on terror” narrative, and he rendered himself toothless by his willingness to abandon his supporters and attempt “bipartisanship” with the Republican jackals who were determined to destroy him and seize power by any means necessary.

Then we had yet a new narrative forming in the corporate media, where the “savior” of America was to be displaced by the faux populist revolt of the “tea party,” created and funded by the Koch brothers and stirred up by the crazed demagogues of Fox Noise like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and led into battle to “save America” by their shapely, smart-alecky, bought-out kewpie doll, the iconic Sarah Palin — the pretty face of the new Amerikan fascism. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court pursued its agenda of destroying any real democracy by granting citizenship rights to corporations, to buy any candidates they please, and defeat any who threaten their interests. Then of course came Trump…the embodied avatar of all this ugliness, vulgarity, truthlessness, brutality, and fascism, who hijacked the Republican party, reducing them to a fascist cult of personality, which has now set their sites on a complete, systematic subversion of our democracy, from the Supreme Court and congressional toadies like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham all the way to state legislatures.

How do we cope with this accelerating descent into fascism, this world of lies and fraud, this matrix of manufactured opinions and blustering faux patriotism, of “prolefeed” stirring up popular resentment of anyone who challenges corporate power? All I have to offer is the discipline of Satyagraha — Gandhi’s master key for citizens faced with a universally corrupt and deceitful world order where, as Bob Marley once said, “the truth is an offense/But not a sin.”

Satyagraha — the word means “grasping the truth” — consists of three basic principles, outlined by Gandhi and shared by all his predecessors (from the Buddha and Jesus to George Fox and the Quakers, Thoreau, and Tolstoy) and successors (from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and Vandana Shiva), for confronting an overwhelming oppressive power. Those principles Gandhi called Ahimsa, Satya, and Swaraj. Let’s take them one at a time:

Ahimsa means doing no harm — a total and categorical commitment to nonviolence, not only in deed, but also in thought and intention. This is, of course, easier said than done. It is a discipline that calls for continued, honest introspection into one’s own motives, or what Dr. King called “self-purification.” Another term for it is “resistance without hatred,” or “nonviolent noncooperation with evil,” as Gandhi called it. It entails a willingness to endure suffering, even to death, without inflicting it in return. And no one ever said it was easy — it demands continued, rigorous moral self-discipline, “shining a spotlight on our own motives” as Gandhi put it. He also said that true ahimsa required more, not less, courage than violent resistance, and that “passive resistance” was a misnomer, since ahimsa must be active and forthright.

Satya means truthfulness — a total, categorical commitment to truth. It means a willingness to speak truth to power, regardless of the risks, whenever called upon to do so.

Swaraj means self-rule. In the original context of Indian resistance to British imperialism, it referred politically to the movement for independence from British rule and self-government. But in his own writings, Gandhi expanded the definition to mean both “self-reliance” as a community and “self-control” as individuals. In particular, Gandhi used the Spinning Wheel (with a subtle allusion to the Wheel of Dharma) as a symbol of Swaraj — the idea being that if the peasants of India learned to spin their own cotton, they could (and did) control their own economy at the grassroots, and were no longer dependent on British industry.

These three concepts — Ahimsa, Satya, and Swaraj — are intertwined and inseparable. They can be mapped, with little difficulty, onto the Three Jewels of Buddhism — Buddha (Ahimsa), Dharma (Satya), and Sangha (Swaraj) and they are subject to a wide range of interpretations, applicable to any particular context. In our present context — the steady, relentless deterioration of our constitutional democracy into a corporate fascist pseudo-democracy, I would interpret them as follows:

Ahimsa: A resolute rejection of any and all forms of militarism or violence, in thought, word, or deed. When confronted with violent, hateful words from right-wingers, simply breathe, observe, and let go. As you breathe in, take in the suffering behind that person’s expression of hatred; as you breathe out, send your own equanimity to awaken and enlighten that person. It is difficult, of course, but with practice, gets easier. This also means, of course, that when necessary, we must nonviolently but firmly refuse to cooperate with any form of evil, no matter whether doing so endangers us or not. And this, too, takes a firm commitment to daily practice, to purify ourselves against such an eventuality.

Satya: A readiness, whenever necessary, to speak truth to power, regardless of the potential danger of doing so — through whatever channels are most likely to reach the most people. But speaking truth must also be done in the spirit of Ahimsa, without indulging in violent or hateful language, but striving, always, to address the recipient’s concerns and clarify their misunderstandings.

Swaraj: In today’s context, this concept refers, above all, to withdrawing our financial support from Glomart in whatever ways are available, and building a sustainable, organic, community-based economy from the ground up. The discipline of Permaculture and building a network of local, organic food sources is an ideal way to practice Swaraj today. Every dollar we deny to Glomart is a dollar invested in Gaia. And our dollars are the life blood of Glomart. This was Gandhi’s brilliant strategic insight, for his boycotts of British-made goods was what, more than anything, brought down the British imperial domination of India.

One final point, constantly emphasized by Gandhi and the other great Satyagrahis: That is, that truth is indestructible. As Gandhi once said (and I paraphrase), when asked how he could possibly hope to prevail against the entrenched Apartheid regime in South Africa, “even if I were a minority of one, I would still do exactly what I am doing — because in the long run, tyranny always falls, and truth will always prevail.” He therefore emphasized three principles for the practice of Satyagraha, no matter what the situation: It must be practiced mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly. Let’s look briefly at these:

Mindful: Any act of Satyagraha should be performed with full awareness of, and scrupulous honesty about, your own intentions. One of the most common mistakes that people make is mistaking passive aggression for Satyagraha. If there is any hatred in your heart, it is better not to act, for that hatred will manifest, whether you want it to or not. And mindfulness needs to be cultivated, continuously.

Strategic: An act of Satyagraha is a political act — Gandhi called it a form of warfare, meaning that what matters most is how effective it is — not at “defeating” the “enemy” (like normal, violent warfare) but at awakening and transforming the majority of people — including your “enemy” — from absorption in self-serving delusions to a transformative awareness of truth. And strategic behavior is often counterintuitive — it necessarily involves a battle of wits with those who would thwart you. This means, above all, good public relations. Gandhi was well aware that an act of mass nonviolent resistance without interviews, cameras, or reporters would be pointless, self-indulgent, and self-defeating.

Relentless: Defeat is not a part of a Satyagrahi’s vocabulary. Even if all his efforts are thwarted in a ruthless paroxysm of tyranny and oppression — even if he faces a firing squad or torture chamber, a true, disciplined Satyagrahi will simply continue to practice Ahimsa, Satya, and Swaraj, indifferent to personal suffering, aware of impermanence, and confident that even if he dies a horrible death, the Truth itself, for which he lives, is imperishable. Mandela, for example, spent 26 years in a jail cell on Robbins Island, and what did he do during that long confinement? He practiced Satyagraha — refusing to cooperate with evil (despite the threats), treating everyone (both guards and prisoners) with decency and courtesy, and cultivating Ahimsa, Satya, and Swaraj in everything he did. And when he was finally released, Apartheid collapsed and he stepped from a prison cell into the Presidency. Such examples as Gandhi, Mandela, and King must continually inspire us as we face the all-consuming evil of our own times. As the Dalai Lama puts it simply, “Never give up.”



I am a retired English professor now living in Oregon, and a life-long environmental activist, Buddhist, and holistic philosopher.

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Tom Ellis

I am a retired English professor now living in Oregon, and a life-long environmental activist, Buddhist, and holistic philosopher.