Gandhi and 9/11

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(HOST) On this historic date, commentator Peter Gilbert reflects on the legacy of another September 11th.

(GILBERT) Today is the sixth anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001, a date, like December 7th, 1941, that will live in infamy. But today is also the hundred and first anniversary of an historic event that’s positive, peaceful, and profound.

On September 11, 1906, a young lawyer named Mohandas K. Gandhi addressed a meeting of 3,000 people crowded into the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa. Members of the Indian community had gathered to organize opposition to a proposed law that would require Indians to be fingerprinted and carry passes at all times. Gandhi argued that the law be resisted, but warned that they had to expect that they could be jailed, fined, beaten and even killed.

The assembly not only declared its opposition to the legislation; its members raised their right hands and swore, with God as their witness, that they would not submit to such a law. Thus began the movement that would literally change the world. Gandhi had been influenced, he said, by the teachings of Jesus and the writings of Tolstoy and Thoreau – specifically his famous essay, Civil Disobedience.

But the movement didn’t yet have a name. The newspaper that Gandhi produced held, believe it or not, a contest. And from that contest came a new word – Satyagraha. Satya means truth and Gandhi explained that it also implies love. And agraha means firmness, suggesting force. Satyagraha: the force that is born of truth and love or nonviolence.

The word may sound alien to Westerners, but the concept isn’t really alien any more. In fact, even the word is less alien than one might think: many English words have Sanscrit roots, and "graha" comes from the Sanscrit word "grah", which gives us the English word "grab" – the force or strength to hold onto something.

For Gandhi, Satyagraha wasn’t just the name of a movement with specific legal goals. He saw it as a universal tactic and philosophy that could overcome injustice and hatred, even when implemented in large-scale political conflicts.

Gandhi had in mind not just civil disobedience or passive resistance, but something higher – something based on truth and non-violence. He envisioned a truth-force; its goal is to convert the wrong-doer, rather than coerce or defeat him.

In the century that followed, Gandhi used Satyagraha to win India’s independence from the British; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. embraced it to oppose racial segregation in this country; and Nelson Mandela used it to end apartheid in the country where the movement began. As Satyagraha turns 101 years old today, people of all faiths and perspectives might well consider whether or not it’s applicable in what’s been called the post-9/11 world, if so, how, and if not, why not.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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