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Trinity on Ahimsa (Nonviolence):
Part I - Gandhi's Truth Force
A Sermon Preached by Reverend Lyn Plumb

The Brookfield Unitarian Universalist Church, January 3, 1999



In the town of Sherborn, MA, about 15 miles west of Boston, on the grounds of the interfaith Peace Abbey, there is an eight foot tall statue of Gandhi, the "Mahatma," or "Great Soul," that stands in the pose we see of him often - dressed in his simple peasant garb, knobby knees clearly showing, with his long walking stick in one hand. This statue of Gandhi is the centerpiece of the Peace Abbey's Pacifist Memorial, a memorial that was constructed and dedicated the year I was an intern peace chaplain there in 1994 - 95. The statue is surrounded by radiating walls graced with the names and quotes of noted pacifists, all deceased now, for this is a memorial. Such names of former and famous pacifists as Jesus, Buddha, the Native American Chief Seattle, Albert Schweitzer, and John Lennon can be found there among many others of diverse backgrounds and times in history. It is in remembrance of their ideals and their work, attempting to end all acts of violence.

The idea for this rather unique memorial was born in the agile mind of Lewis Randa, the inspirited director of the Peace Abbey and a soul-filled founder of a school for the handicapped that lies adjacent to the Abbey. He wished to help out his good friend, Arun Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma. Arun Gandhi, himself a noted proponent of nonviolence, was looking for a fitting way to commemorate his grandfather's 125th anniversary of his birth. While talking on the phone with Arun one day, Lewis Randa looked out his abbey window, past the green lawn of the abbey grounds, to a war memorial constructed on the abutting Sherborn town property. And suddenly Lewis knew what he had to do - construct this pacifist memorial on that abbey lawn, honoring Gandhi on his 125th birthday - and also other pacifists. This memorial would be not 100 feet away from the town's war memorial, honoring Sherborn soldiers who had died in war.

The war memorial's centerpiece has an 8 foot high statue of a woman dressed in ancient Grecian attire. She has her right hand to her cheek, with her head turned a bit, and she has a haunted, forlorn, even anguished face. In her left arm, she cradles a World War I helmet, representative of all the Sherborn war dead whose names surround her. She is called by the name of an ancient Greek goddess, "Lady Remembrance."

Well, this close juxtaposition of statues - and their symbolic meanings - in the center of town at first created quite a brouhaha with the townspeople. Some of you may recall learning about it in newspapers or the Boston TV news stations. It called for many people to examine their conscience, their hearts, their intellect, their prejudices and proclivities, and their sense of propriety in a way they perhaps never had to do before. But in the end it was accepted.

And today, in the busiest intersection of this town of Sherborn, Gandhi stands over it all with a slight, serene smile on his face, a face which is turning toward Lady Remembrance, open and accepting, almost childlike in its simplicity. I have often fantasized about conversations they could have with one another as the town traffic speeds by. Lady Remembrance mourning the lost ones, lamenting the horrors of war inflicted on the innocent and good souls. Gandhi responding by telling her he too mourns and laments the same things, and had worked in his lifetime at alternative ways to end conflicts without violence, without killing or harming others, to end the need for such war memorials.

Gandhi's belief in the essential importance of nonviolence and acting to promote such ideals was not new. It was not new to the people of India either. It comes from an ancient religious group in India called the Jains. Jainism is believed to be even older than Hinduism, the religion of Gandhi, and indeed Jains are considered by some to be the mother religion birthing Hinduism. The central spiritual tenet of the Jains is something they call "ahimsa." "Ahimsa" is a belief in a deep and profound reverence for life - all life, animal or vegetable. They are all divine creations and as such, Jains conclude, must be solemnly respected.

Thus, for the Jains, all kinds of killing, all kinds of violence, are abominations, antithetical to life. They believe that unless we live with nonviolence and a reverence for all living beings in our hearts, our very souls, all our humanness and acts of goodness, all our vows, virtues, and knowledge, all our practices to give up greed and acquisitiveness are meaningless and useless. They believe that this reverence for all life begins by cultivating a genuine respect for oneself. We UU's recognize this in a more simplistic sense when we claim in our first UU principle the inherent dignity and worth of each individual. Jains believe that the life force in each of us is precious and that we are here to respect and reveal its innate wisdom.

Thus, to this day, this small group in India, roughly only 1% of India's population, are all vegetarians, conscientious objectors to all wars and fighting, are against the caste system and any other injustices that harm people in any way there. They have high moral practices that influence Indians, somewhat like a moral conscience, to a far greater degree than their small number might indicate. Sort of like us UU's in America, I'd like to think.

When Gandhi was first confronted with racial discrimination in the South Africa of a hundred years ago, he thought of the ideal of ahimsa that he had learned as a child from his highly religious mother. Now, as an Indian lawyer in South Africa he was considered to be "colored," and had many of the same injustices levied on him and his fellow Indians as was levied on the Blacks there. And some of the Indians and Blacks were advocating fighting back, using violence, to correct these injustices, the evils of such a system.

But Gandhi soon objected to using violence even to correct injustices "because," he said, "when it appears to do good, the good it does is only temporary -- and the evil it does is permanent." It was, you see, disrespecting ahimsa, the Jain ideal of the ultimate and all-pervading reverence for life, including the lives of one's oppressors, one's opponents, one's "enemy," if one must use that term. Gandhi felt that violence rarely achieved lasting results, for every apparently successful act of violence encouraged the belief that it was the only effective way to achieve the desired goal. It developed the habit of using violence every time one ran into opposition, never feeling compelled to explore other alternatives. *

Even more importantly, thought Gandhi, was that each successful use of violence blunted the community's moral sensibility and raised its threshold of violence.* Thus, swords have given way to cannons as acceptable means of violence, which have given way to aerial bombs and missiles, which has given way to the ultimate means of destruction we have to this date, anyway, - nuclear warfare. And thus, too, in our urban jungles of today, various gangs, and even loners in much emotional turmoil, have graduated from using their fists with one another to using knives and now automatic rifles at innocent crowds of people.

Violence begets more violence, no matter what the cause or provocation. It is all a negation of ahimsa, that all important reverence for all life, no matter what sins a living human being may have committed. Gandhi believed that one must distinguish the sin from the sinner - hating the sin, hating the evil being done, but still respecting, even loving, the sinner. This idea may be one many parents can readily understand when their children perform misdeeds, but which nations or groups of individuals often fail to see.

So, how does one correct injustices, resolve conflicts, or stop those who would do much harm to their fellow human beings without using violence? In answer to this Gandhi developed a new method which he called, in his native tongue of Hindi, satyagraha. Translated into English, it is called "truth force," or "soul force." This method started with dialoguing with one's oppressors.

But he soon saw that rational, reasonable arguments alone were not enough to change people's minds and right the wrongs people do. He realized there needed to be a method that would activate the soul, the heart, the essence of truth within oneself, mobilize its enormous latent energy, and generate a new kind of spiritual power not ever before used in political life. It was developed as he dealt with oppression in South Africa and honed even more when he returned to India to utilize this new method against the British rule in the early part of this century, and against such injustices in Indian society as the caste system.

By reaching out to penetrate not just the rational mind of an opponent, but the heart, or soul of an opponent, Gandhi believed that one could penetrate the underlying barriers of prejudice, ill-will, dogmatism, self-righteousness, and selfishness. Satyagraha, truth-force, or soul-force, was a "surgery of the soul," something that pierced the soul of many a South African or Indian soldier or policeman confronting a group of defenseless protesters passively resisting the soldiers' weapons. And it pierced many a witness to such proceedings as well.
But remember - the passive resistance, the civil disobedience for which Gandhi became famous was not the first choice of those practicing his new method of truth force. Dialoging with one's opponent was. Gandhi was most willing to talk and discuss possibilities, for as he once said, "I am essentially a man of compromise because I am never sure that I am right." It was only when this dialogue was denied or became an insincere exercise that he resorted to such things as civil disobedience.

Even so, Gandhi still strove to maintain a good relationship with his opponent, always trying to put his opponent at ease and never trying to harass, embarrass, anger or frighten an opponent. This sensitivity, he felt, would be more likely to evoke a moral response from his opponent. If an opponent ever showed a sincere willingness to resume a dialogue, Gandhi would halt all civil disobedience.
Now it took high moral resolve to practice civil disobedience, to stand up defenseless against a group of police or soldiers wielding weapons which very well might be used, or to know that one might end up in prison for disobeying the law. There was the possibility of being seriously physically harmed or even killed. It was imperative, Gandhi told his followers, that those practicing this truth force must be of high moral standing and must truly feel nothing but love and respect for the opponent. He and his adherents needed to be willing to practice an uncomplaining "suffering love," as he called it. This "suffering love" Gandhi himself took as far as fasting - to near death - from time to time until various leaders could come to a mutually beneficial agreement Satyagraha, truth force, was not for the faint-hearted or the only partially dedicated.

Only actions performed in this spirit would truly disarm the opponent, Gandhi believed, weakening his feelings of anger and hatred, and mobilizing his higher nature. At the end of his time in South Africa, Gandhi counted his chief opponent, General Smuts, as his dearest friend. And he became good friends with many a British and Indian leader later on as well.

One of the names on the Pacifist Memorial at the Peace Abbey is that of a great Jain leader, called the Mahavira, who lived 500 years before the birth of Jesus. His quote says, "Whom thou intendest to strike, or to govern, or to torture, or to enslave, or to kill, is, in truth, none other than thyself."

Christians have heard something similar in the words of Jesus, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

Gandhi takes this Jainist ahimsa ideal, one Jesus purports as well, and develops it within the framework of a shared humanity. Yes, Gandhi agreed that every community needed a widespread sense of justice to hold it together. But Gandhi claimed even more was needed - a deeper and emotionally charged sense of a shared humanity. He believed that people could not sustain a communal life without a spirit of mutual concern and love - even with those committing evil.

The slow and often painful task of cultivating and consolidating this sense of a shared humanity, and thereby laying the foundations for a truly moral community, was a collective responsibility. It was this responsibility that those practicing satyagraha, truth force, took upon themselves to discharge.* Those practicing satyagraha were in essence returning not evil for evil, but good for evil, thereby striving to overcome that evil. As Gandhi once said about a passage from the Old Testament, if everyone took an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we'd all be blind and toothless.

As different and novel as Gandhi's ideals were at the time, truth force has met with quite a few successes. The South Africans did make a few small concessions to Gandhi's demands. India did achieve its independence with Britain fairly peaceably, without the bloodshed of sustained fighting.

But more importantly, because of his widespread notoriety in the Western world, his actions planted seeds with many people around the world. The Civil Rights movement in our own country is a prime example of this, one I will explore two weeks from now on the last part of this trinity of ahimsa. But one can also think of the leaders of Poland and Germany who coordinated a peaceful dismantling of the Iron Curtain, and the slow but progressive talks and agreements Israel is making with its neighbors. Talking to one another, conducting serious and sincere negotiations is becoming more the norm now than a quick and hasty decision to use arms to resolve conflict.

But Gandhi's methods have met with criticism as well. Not every opponent's heart can be softened and opened, no matter how much soul force and "suffering love" may occur. Sociopaths or those who believe in a very different kind of humanity's well-being may never be moved to change their ways or their thinking by a satyagraha. One can perhaps think of Saddam Hussien in this light.

Gandhi himself said his methods of truth force failed to consolidate a mutually loving and accepting community of a united India. He watched in dismay the partitioning of the largely Moslem states of Pakistan and Bangladesh from the Hindu body of India proper. And I am sure we all can think of many instances since Gandhi's time that negotiations in various parts of the world were still never even considered - or considered sincerely - before fighting ensued.

But the seeds have been planted. Change comes slowly, almost imperceptibly sometimes. But change does happen. People do take up and carry on ideals started by others. Margaret Mead, another Peace Abbey Pacifist Memorial entrant, once said "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Although Gandhi is known for his dealings with the issues of evil - from oppression and injustice - on a national scale, his ideals for a right and just community began on his ashram. And one must begin with small numbers. The ideals of satyagraha, of truth, or soul, force, of engaging the nonviolent moral force of one's heart's core in resolving differences, must begin in each individual before it moves on in ever widening circles.

Lewis Randa at his Peace Abbey erected his own personal satyagraha when he "forced" people in that small town to reconsider some hard ideas they may have had - and he continues to do so with all who pass by that memorial.

Are there times when a satyagraha, a truth force is called for in your own individual life? A time when you may feel morally, soulfully, spiritually and nonviolently called to resolve a difference, end a conflict, correct an injustice, thereby showing forth your deep reverence for all life? A time when you feel called to help create a community with a deep and abiding sense of a shared humanity, no matter what horrible deeds a person in that community may have done? Can you love, not hate, such a person - and attempt to dialogue with such a person? Is it possible that violence can truly end, that heartfelt relationships can rule each small community, each nation, and the world? Gandhi said, in our responsive reading this morning (#577), that it is possible.

Let us all ponder these questions in our hearts, that perhaps a satyagraha seed or two may be planted in our own souls. So may it be. 

* from "Gandhi", by Bhikku Parekh

History of the Pacifist Memorial

Memorial Walls

Unknown Civilians Memorial

Memorable Plaque Quotations on The Pacifist Memorial



Articles Related to the Pacifist Memorial

-Distant Memories Begin to Stir, by J. William Semich

-Trinity on Ahimsa, by Rev. Lyn Plumb

- The Unwelcome Gandhi.
by Alex Beam