President Obama said, “It was the moral force of non-violence that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.” This calls to mind the life and work of  India’s and South Africa’s Mohandas Gandhi. (More)

Many scholars have documented and analyzed the Gandhi’s life and work; I cannot do it justice nor examine its rich roots in a few paragraphs. Still, there may be something to learn that would help us to better understand the genesis of the current nonviolent youth movements in the Middle East.

Mohandas Gandhi, born into a pious, educated, Hindu, merchant class family in colonized India on October 2, 1969. He was educated in the UK, was able to lead the Indian people into a nonviolent rebellion, leading to India’s independence from England. He also was a major influence in South Africa, where he first developed the theories he used to foment change.

In his youth, the future “Mahatma” (Great Soul) was a slight, shy boy, afraid of the dark, a mediocre student at best, and an autocratic and jealous groom to his young bride Kasturbai; the children were joined at age 13, according to custom. Reluctantly, his family sent him to study law in England, where he also extensively studied Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and Muslim literature. He became a yet more committed Hindu, but was moved and strongly influenced by his mother’s Jainism (which promotes conquering internal forces in a path of non-violence towards all living beings), and by the Christian Sermon on the Mount, and by Tolstoy and Thoreau.

One cannot separate Gandhi’s spirituality from his political action so it may be important to note that  he found that the basic principle of  Love in all these religions were the same. He said that we are all part of one interconnected whole, and that is why loving God and loving others is the same, and why one must actively refuse to harm others, even those who harm you.

The South Africa Years

For various reasons he was having trouble making a living as a lawyer upon his return to India, and he traveled to South Africa, to take a job offered by a friend of his older brother.

And then something happened that changed the course of his life, and thus ours. Soon after arriving in (then British) South Africa, he was riding in the first-class compartment of a train. A white man boarded and called railway officials to remove Gandhi because he was a brown man with whom he did not wish to share a car. Since he had bought a first-class ticket, Gandhi had refused to leave. A policeman literally threw him off the train with his baggage. Nothing like this had happened to him before, and he contemplated his future that night in the station. His legal career had not exactly thrived, and as he sat at the station, he actually thought of an entire new way to resolve legal cases through mediation, which set his legal career on an entirely new and quite successful path.

Since he was now quite upset about the unfair way he and others were treated by white South Africans, supported by laws of White Privilege, he began meeting with other Indian expats to determine what to do. Not without controversy amongst even his peers, but based on his strong beliefs, Gandhi developed methods of non-violent resistance against injustice, such as protest marches and strikes that later also served as a model for black Americans and black South Africans to finally win their civil rights.

Gandhi was often harassed, sometimes even beaten or jailed. Still, he did not give up his insistence that everyone was to be respected and that hurting others was simply not an option, but allowing themselves to live with injustice was no loving option either.

Back to India

By 1913, in 20 years time, after many adventures, many new laws had been agreed to and Gandhi felt his work in Africa was done. He went home to India, where he wanted to apply what he had learned to free his country from British rule. India, like America before our war of Independence, was supposed to enrich England, and Indian citizens had little say, because Britain made and enforced all the laws to benefit themselves. This was unacceptable, and Indian citizens demanded independence, which wealthy Britons of course opposed. (As a side note, I wonder how much has changed in America a few hundred years later, with multinational corporations taking the place of colonial rulers. It is certainly a point to contemplate.)

What Methods did he use?

Gandhi’s methods included protest marches for change, communal prayers, fasts (refusing to eat until the unjust thing was changed), and strikes (refusing to work or purchase certain goods until the unjust thing was changed). He taught people to read and to be self-sufficient.

He did not avoid violence toward himself or his followers in the cause of justice and freedom. He said that, like any other soldier, nonviolent activists had to be ready to die for their cause. The difference was that nonviolent activists, while willing to die, must never be willing to kill, for then hatred had won the day.

To draw popular attention to  unjust law, he refused to obey certain laws, like when he famously led thousands of followers to make salt from the sea even though it was against the law. At first the authorities decided to ignore him. But hundreds of thousands of Indians began making and selling their own salt. Gandhi announced that he intended to lead a peaceful takeover of a British-owned salt works and was arrested on the evening before the action.

The next day, with Gandhi in jail, the Indian people tried nonviolently to enter the salt works. The British clubbed them, and over 60,000 people were eventually put in jail. This brutality by the British, as the world was watching, guaranteed eventual Indian victory.

As we see, his courageous nonviolent action plan was definitely not a way to run away from problems. Quite the opposite. Deliberately, no-one could ignore him. In fact, he kept up his protests, whatever form they took, until the authorities reacted in uncivil ways, though it may put himself or his followers in harm’s way. I think of the young Google exec who kept repeating on TV this week that he was willing to die to free his country. The Egypt youth movement had studied and trained in nonviolent practices, and demanded it from their followers as Gandhi did – as the lunch counter sit-ins and voter registration drives in the American South did – and succeeded in much the same way.

To address the economics of colonialism, Gandhi added a new ingredient to his recipe for freedom and justice. He called it non-cooperation. He told the people to use only Indian-made goods and services and to only wear Khadi (hand spun cloth). He himself wore Khadi clothes, and would sit to spin on his Charkha (Spinning wheel). This was actually a radical move. People stopped buying British-made goods, even lit bonfires with them. He urged all Indians to boycott (not use) British goods, courts, schools, and government offices.

The beginning of world-wide change

We all know both the victory and tragedy of the rest of the India story. Independence was won, but the country was partitioned along religious lines into India and Pakistan, significant tensions remain, and Gandhi was assassinated (martyred) at evening prayers by a Hindu zealot.

But since the 1950’s his ideas, his philosophy, and his people-powered methods have transformed autocratic regimes the world over.

You just may be interested to know that the current “spontaneous” Egyptian revolution took (The April 6 Group) 3 years to carefully plan. Some info can be found at the FOR blog The mythology of spontaneity: nonviolent action in Egypt and Creating a Culture of Peace …  and, my next piece will focus on the work of nonviolent trainer Gene Sharp, who you can read about in the Feb 11 2011 issue of Scientific American, if you want an early start .

My brief summary draws in  part from information prepared by Unity Church for a seven-week study, “The Wisdom of Gandhi.”