“Challenges confronting our contemporary world like terrorism, populism and religious pluralism recommend revisiting Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha. Both this concept as well as his ecumenical opening for religious plurality stem from his time in South Africa (between 1893 and 1914),” said Wolfgang Palaver of the Department of Systematic Theology at the University of Innsbruck. “Our project discusses Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha (the practice of non-violent resistance), its historical development, its relevance for transformation in South Arica, and also its limits.”
Palaver is leading a group of fellows comprising Louise du Toit of the Department of Philosophy at Stellenbosch University, Ephraim Meir of the Department of Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah at Bar-Ilan University and Ed Noort of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen, in a project that will engage with Satyagraha and the concept of non-violence from different angles and theoretical perspectives in an attempt to understand what these ideas can bring to our world today. They presented the background to the project in the first STIAS online seminar for 2021.
Palaver explained that the project is an offspring of a seminar on religion and violence held in 2018. “Our initial focus was violence but we decided to be more positive and focus on Gandhi’s principles of non-violence – Satyagraha – which developed initially in South Africa.”
The four scholars will approach the subject from different angles. Palaver will reflect on Satyagraha from the perspective of French philosopher René Girard’s mimetic anthropology focusing especially on mimetic rivalry as a main cause of human violence and addressing the religious roots of Gandhi’s concept. Ed Noort will investigate textual hermeneutics by discussing the ancient authoritative texts (Hebrew Bible – especially Daniel, Plato and Bhagavad Gita, New Testament and Qur’an) as Gandhi’s sources for non-violent resistance. Ephraim Meir will engage with Gandhi’s contribution to an interreligious theology and will specifically unpack Gandhi’s problematic understanding of Judaism therefore addressing some of the limits of Satyagraha. Louise du Toit will also reflect on limits by addressing Satyagraha from a feminist perspective.
Noort explained that he will be looking at the possibilities and limitations of various religious authoritative texts as the source materials for Gandhi’s ideas. “These are texts that have travelled through time and have had a diverse history of interpretation,” he said. “Gandhi explicitly called for an empathic reading of religious texts. He believed that knowing the scripture was not enough, you must live according to it as well. I want to reach a detailed understanding of the development of his views on the use of authoritative texts and traditions, by reading them in the context of genre, time and place.”
Ephraim Meir will look at Gandhi’s contribution to interreligious theology, which Meir views as a pluralist approach that combines diversity and unity. “It is a kind of theology which unites, not separates. I want to study Gandhi in this context. I want to understand how he saw his religious heritage, how he remade himself and how he perceived other religions.”
“We need to understand the implications of Gandhi’s vision today,” he said. “Historically it is clear but we need to ask what we can learn today. Ask what we can do today in a Gandhi way when there may be different forms of violence than before, but they are no less violent.”
But, at the same time, he also wants to understand some of the limitations of Gandhi’s philosophy. “For example, his understanding of Judaism. Gandhi considered Judaism as a religion not also as a nation, which had serious implications for his attitude towards Zionism. He advised the Jews in Palestine to practice non-violence and rely on the goodwill of the Arabs.”
Du Toit admitted that looking at Gandhi from a feminist viewpoint offers different angles and challenges.
“One option is to look at what Gandhi’s explicit views might offer women,” she explained. “However, his views were not always clear and also changed over time. For example, he was clearly against child marriage and sympathetic to the plight of widows and sex workers but, at the same time, had outrageous views on female sexuality, menstruation, etc. Some of these views live on in India and may underlie some of the most atrocious sexual attacks on women, such as Jyoti Singh’s gang rape and murder in 2012.”
Other angles she will consider is to trace the development of Gandhi’s thinking on Satygraha read through a feminist philosophical lens; putting his ideas into conversation with contemporary feminist authors like Judith Butler (and specifically her 2020 publication The Force of Non-Violence: The Ethical in the Political); and, finally, foregrounding women’s protests, (e.g. the Suffragettes, the 1956 Union Buildings March in South Africa and the Take Back the Night Protests) and asking how Gandhi’s thinking on non-violent resistance relates to these.
Violence and decolonisation
In a wide-ranging discussion, the group addressed some of the issues of decolonisation and, specifically, the contrast between Gandhi’s ideas and those of political philosopher Frantz Fanon.
“Fanon saw violence as an imperative for restoring selfhood for the victims of colonial violence,” explained Du Toit. “He saw it as a cleansing force and moreover as the only language the colonising forces understood. Gandhi, in contrast, saw human dignity as a given – coming before violence, not the outcome of violence. He believed responding non-violently restored dignity, but responding violently damaged one’s own dignity.”
“For Gandhi the British Empire was culture based on brute force,” added Palaver. “He saw violence as built into Western culture.”
They also highlighted ongoing institutional and ideological violence and their link to current inequalities and specific violence like gender-based violence.
“Gandhi’s first acts of resistance were against institutional injustices in South Africa,” said Du Toit. “He understood systematic and institutional violence, but importantly distinguished between the system and the people in it – for example, he phoned Prime Minister Smuts and tried to change his mind on things. He believed you can connect with individuals within the system and change their minds. He never saw his opponents as dehumanised enemies. He believed that we turn to violence only when we lose faith.”
And how are these ideas important to the current time and the future?
The discussion emphasised the need to understand different notions of power – encompassing empowerment, power over/domination and the power that lies within one’s self control.
“Violence against violence always leads to disproportionate violence,” said Noort. “Talking to each other on non-violence would be hugely beneficial.”
“For example, when religions talk to one another they can counter violence,” added Meir. “But it is a difficult task requiring intensive listening, translation, humility and hospitality to receive the other. There are lots of conditions needed to come to real conversation in a community of religions. It is the task of an entire civilisation. I think that an in-depth understanding of Satyagraha could open windows to new possibilities. It may open unexpected, new horizons.”
“Violence is easily initiated and escalated,” said Palaver. “It is particularly urgent for the world today to find a third way between indifference and violence: fighting against injustice but without succumbing to violence.”
“Satyagraha also emphasises commitment to truth – it means holding firmly to truth with force,” he continued. “The importance of truth is even more relevant in the world today in the face of growing conspiracy theories. We want to understand the importance of truth for transformation.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu