Gandhi's lesson for the Philippines

THE world cheered last February as thousands of brave Philippine people played out an extraordinary drama of political resistance, standing in the path of tanks and troops in a show of nonviolent force that brought down an autocratic regime. Today, as Corazon Aquino's government skirts perilously between right and left, the question may be asked, has nonviolence failed? Having grown up in the India of Mohandas Gandhi, whose nonviolent revolution freed India from British imperialism, I would suggest that such a question fails to distinguish between a nonviolent action and true nonviolence. Simply because people act bravely and refrain from violent means to achieve specific ends does not mean they have become nonviolent. Nonviolent action can produce impressive short-term gains, as it has admirably in the Philippines. But nonviolence implies far more than an event or strategy; it is, in the Gandhian sense, a way of life. Where nonviolence has failed in the past, it has been because it was not fully undertaken in the first place. Rightly understood and applied - a tall order, I admit - nonviolence requires long preparation and a deep and continuing faith in the nobility of human nature.

Let me explain. During the 30 years that Gandhi led India's independence movement, far more of his time was devoted to teaching us the disciplines of nonviolence than to leading us in nonviolent campaigns. He taught us that there is a world of difference between not being violent and being nonviolent - that is, being actively loving toward an adversary, wearing him down with patience, not identifying others with the evil they perpetuate, and being prepared to suffer rather than inflict suffering on adversaries, ``matching,'' as Martin Luther King Jr., said, ``their capacity to inflict suffering with your capacity to endure it.''

Nonviolence, in the Gandhian sense, challenges the modern view of action which implies that what we do externally is all that matters. Nonviolence rests upon the belief that internal states are profoundly significant. What we think in our minds and feel in our hearts, Gandhi would say, flows through what we say and do and determines whether our actions will have beneficial results in the long run. It means that even successful nonviolent actions, undertaken with feelings of animosity toward the adversary, can result in wrong ends. We cannot have hatred in our hearts, Gandhi told us, and expect our ``nonviolent'' actions to produce lasting beneficial results.

Thus Gandhi's emphasis upon the difference between momentary gains and lasting change. More than once, he refused to take action at a politically advantageous time because he did not feel the Indian people were properly prepared for nonviolence. He feared that the immediate political successes would inevitably deteriorate into calamity. On this point he was absolutely uncompromising.

Gandhi often upset us all with his painful critiques of our own shortcomings. I often went to hear him, and the experience was unlike that of listening to any public figure I know of, then or now. He spoke slowly, in simple, unvarnished language that the simplest villager could understand. Gandhi based his nonviolence on the law that all life is one, and told us that this law could not be violated without negative consequences. On the other hand, those who lived in harmony with this law could become, as he had, powerful personal and social forces for goodness. To bring this force into our lives, he explained, we had to ``shed all fear'' - even, he made it plain, our fear of death.

One of the most effective tools he offered was the power of prayer. ``I can give my own testimony,'' he wrote, ``and say that a heartfelt prayer is undoubtedly the most potent instrument that man possesses for overcoming cowardice. ... When the mind is completely filled with His spirit, one cannot harbor ill will or hatred toward anyone and, reciprocally, the enemy will shed his enmity and become a friend.''

Often, it seemed, Gandhi chastised us more than he did our oppressors. So great was the challenge of his vision that I would be as much troubled as inspired by his words, and would go home unable to stop thinking about what he said. Years later some of his sentences would echo in my consciousness, troubling me still.

Yet the harder he was on us, the more we responded. Simple farmers and laborers in the thousands would hear him and rise to follow his call, becoming capable of acts of courage that they could not have imagined before. In my own ancestral family, a wealthy uncle who had everything to live for joined the movement and lost an eye during a confrontation. When we went to commiserate with him, we were astounded to find a man who was both proud and cheerful about his loss. ``You should congratulate me,'' he said. ``Gandhi has opened my eyes.''

But inspiration alone is not sufficient. Preparation and training are required, and in the case of India, this preparation took many years. It meant learning to do without the many products we valued from the colonial system, like British cloth; self-control in matters of daily conduct; ridding ourselves of what Gandhi called ``the curse of untouchability''; relearning the value of manual labor and a simple life that many of the educated classes had forgotten. Such training today would need to be reinterpreted within the conditions in which we find ourselves. But without such prolonged preparation, nonviolence cannot be thought of in its fullest, most productive form.

Reading of events in the Philippines, I could not help wondering what a splendid opportunity exists there for such nonviolence. Already the Filipino people have reminded the world that there lies concealed in humanity a force that can combat violence and change the planet into an island of peace and security. With the deep faith of their Christian and Muslim populations, and the bravery of their people, their leadership could begin to create a truly nonviolent society, an example that would stir the entire third world.

Eknath Easwaran is the author of ``Gandhi the Man'' and ``A Man to Match His Mountains: Badshah Khan, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam.''

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