Perhaps you’ve heard? A new Star Wars film opened this week “The Force Awakens.” I can’t say I’m that much of a Star Wars aficionado, but I enjoyed the first three films, before the genre of science fiction-action-adventure films Star Wars wrought became so routinized as to become unwatchable. The new film has received very respectable reviews, and I suspect sometime in the next few weeks I will go see it.
What I liked about the Star Wars films was mystical conceit known as “The Force.” And what I liked most about “the force” is that is reminded me of the philosophy of Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi. Perhaps the most basic and familiar concept of Gandhi is that of satyagraha, a Sanskrit term that he liked to translate as “soul force.” Another term for it might be “the force.” Gandhi loved to speak of satyagraha, systematic campaigns of nonviolence, and ahimsa, a Jainist term meaning the respect for all life as forces.
In 1936 Gandhi had a meeting with Howard Thurman, a prominent African American religious thinker, his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, and another African American minister, Edward Carroll. It was Gandhi’s first meeting with African Americans. They had a long conversation about Gandhi’s ideas about non-violence. He told them that though he coined the term “non-violence”—the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, citing Gandhi, is from 1920—he never really liked it, because of “the negative particle ‘non.” But he said nonviolence, ahimsa, “it is no negative force” but is rather “the greatest and the activist force in nature,” the root meaning of Ahimsa, Gandhi’s preferred Sanskrit word for the concept. “Superficially,” he told Thurman and the others, we are “surrounded by life and bloodshed, life living upon life,” but there is a deeper reality, behind the cycles of birth and death, behind the dross and flux of the world, the truth behind the seeming brutality that apparently confined human life and the natural world to endless cycles of gratuitous violence. Ahimsa “a force which is more positive than electricity and more powerful than the ether,” it “overrides all other forces” and “it is the only true force in life.” Non-violence or Ahimsa, for Gandhi was less an idea than a physical reality, a force at once physical and moral, pervading the universe, whose secrets can only be mastered by those in touch with its powers. Gandhi’s whole life was dedicated to accumulating it and storing it. In a characteristic combination of deep humility and unbounded arrogance, he was fully convinced that through his own actions, through his fasts and his other ascetic practices, concentrate enough soul force so that one man could be the instrument of the liberation of 350 million Indians from British domination. Gandhi was a master of “the force.”
Much has been written about the many sources that George Lucas melded to create the Star Wars trilogy. One of those influences was “Eastern” (Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu) philosophy, from which he derived the notion of “the force.” Whether or not Gandhi was a direct inspiration, it seems sensible to think of Gandhi’s notion of non-violence as akin to Lucas’s—the moral reality and foundation of the universe made palpable and physical, less an ethical choice but an inescapable reality, available to those who seek it.
Now, you are saying to yourself, haven’t I overlooked the big difference between Gandhi and Star Wars, that the masters of the force in the latter dramas, the Jedi masters, blasting foes with light sabers and engaging in all sorts of heroic acts of derring-do, were not exactly practitioners of satyagraha? True, all too true. But I would argue that “the Force” as practiced by Obi-Wan Kenobi and others, is less about violence than bending the universe to one’s will, and this often involved persuading people, by the use of mental powers, to do their bidding. And though Gandhi’s notion of satyagraha did not involve mind control, it was a form of spiritual persuasion. For Gandhi, nonviolence worked when one’s enemies are persuaded to abandon long-held positions through nonviolent methods, when they realize either that 1) they have been wrong or 2) what they have defended is no longer tenable. Non-violence is the psychic transformation of the will of one’s adversaries, and this is a very mysterious business.
But I remain convinced that this is only way to achieve peace. You sometimes hear people say that the problem with the Palestinians is that they don’t have any Gandhis. But satyagraha, properly understood, is far deeper, and infinitely more difficult than simply not shooting guns, throwing rocks, or dropping bombs. It is not really about peaceful protests, as such. It is about mastering one’s will, individually and collectively, and transforming the terms of the debate and discussion. It is about making the situation, without violence, as uncomfortable for the oppressors as the oppressed, for the occupiers as well as the occupied, for the strong as well as the weak. It requires vast amounts of discipline, and a recognition that the only life you can take for your cause, and in some cases must take, is your own.
The point perhaps that Gandhi was trying to make was the non-violence was indeed a force, like other, more direct, and more brutal types of force that are more familiar. And in reality, even in India, in South Africa, in the Civil Rights Movement in the American South, even successful non-violent protest movements are never free of the taint of violence, and I suppose this is to be expected. But the point is to recognize that at its core, non-violent protest seeks to persuade and convert, and not coerce. And this should remain the goal in Israel and Palestine today of persons of good will. Perhaps the opening of “The Force Awakens” is as good a time as any to remember this. And what else can I say in closing to those who are on the path of Gandhian non-violence, in the Middle East or elsewhere, but “may the force be with you.”