Political Sit-ins and Satyagrahashram
with PostModern Gandhiji (PMG)
An advice column offering the Mahatma’s perspective on modern dilemmas
Mahatma Gandhi wanted to uplift all, work against poverty, involve the masses, improve worker’s rights, end corrupt behavior, free people from oppressive rule, etc. These goals sound very much like those of seemingly related movements ranging from the Arab Spring mass demonstrations against autocratic leadership to the Occupy Wall Street protests against the captains of capitalism. And maybe somewhere in the mix are Anna Hazare and his team rallying against the corruption of Indian politics.
How would Gandhi look at these political sit-ins of today?
“Unless you scrupulously follow all the Ashram rules, you will gain nothing by merely staying in the Ashram.” (M. K. Gandhi)
While the aforementioned groups do not share the same exact objective, these campaigns of civil resistance all have occupied physical spaces from which they have shown a sometimes cohesive (and sometimes inchoate) commitment. Whether it is Tahrir Square in Cairo or Zuccotti Park in New York or Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi, the gathering of masses in a public space has created an energy that draws transformation-minded people to join in and those preferring the status quo to push back.
Gandhiji understood the power of the physical place (ashram) to create energy. In much the same way that Zuccotti Park has been a stage from which Occupy Wall Street’s protests have been announced to the world, Gandhiji’s ashrams were a stage for his fasts and marches. The word “stage” is used here as both a noun and a verb: as a noun, to represent a site of political performance, and as a verb, to suggest the planning or staging of political action. But along with the physical stage, Gandhiji coined a phrase—Satyagrahashram—to emphasize the combinatorial power of the non-physical spiritual aspects of ashram life; he insisted that the energy of the ashram would dissipate into factional rivalries unless members of the ashram observed a shared code associated with the following eleven vows:
Truth, Nonviolence, Celibacy, Non-stealing, Non-possession, Physical labor, Control of palate, Fearlessness, Equal respect for all religions, Support for the labor of communal neighbors, and Removal of untouchability.
I imagine that Gandhiji would be distraught that the rules of the social media world appear to be the primary non-physical guidelines giving direction to many of today’s mass movements. As such, there is much perplexity within and outside the contemporary world’s temporary tents; this perplexity leaves many wondering what exactly is the purpose of the gathering?
If the political sit-ins are to result in people standing up, taking notice, and marching forward, then many hands will need to be clasped together around a shared goal and many hearts will need to beat in unison around a shared set of values. With aspirational goals and supporting values, change agents can occupy an envisioned space that transforms “Freedom from Fear” into “Freedom to Hope.”
[Dr. Rajesh C. Oza serves as a consultant to organizations and individuals requiring change leadership. We invite questions for consideration in the PMG column at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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